Against Self-Organization

Life on earth is doomed, according to the biologist Peter Ward in his new book The Medea Hypothesis. This book is meant to be polemical and provocative; I lack the knowledge to evaluate its particular scientific claims. But just as a thought experiment, it is bracing.

Ward’s book is a critique of the quite popular Gaia Hypothesis, originally developed by James Lovelock, which claims that the Earth as a whole, with all its biomass, constitutes an emergent order, a self-organizing system, that maintains the whole planet — its climate, the chemical constitution of the atmosphere and the seas, etc. — in a state that is favorable to the continued flourishing of life. Essentially the Gaia Hypothesis sees the world as a system in homeostatic equilibrium — in much the same ways that individual cells or organisms are self-maintaining, homeostatic systems. Gaia is cybernetically, or autopoietically, self-regulating system: continual feedback, among organisms and their environments, keeps the air temperature, the salinity of the sea, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, etc., within the limits that are necessary for the continued flourishing of life.

Ward’s Medea Hypothesis directly contests all these claims. According to Ward, the ecosphere is not homeostatic or self-regulating; to the contrary, it is continually being driven by positive feedback mechanisms to unsustainable extremes. Most of the mass extinction events in the fossil record, Ward says, were caused by out-of-control life processes — rather than by an external interruption of such processes, such as the giant meteor hit which supposedly led to the extinction of the dinosaurs at the end of the Mesozoic. The great Permian extinction, for instance — the most catastrophic of which we have knowledge, in which 90% of all species, and 99% of all living beings, were destroyed — was caused by “blooms of sulfur bacteria in the seas,” which flourished due to greenhouse heating and poisoned the oceans and the atmospheres with increased concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, which is extremely toxic.

More generally, Ward claims that life processes have destabilizing effects, rather than homeostatic ones, upon the very environment that they rely upon for survival. This is largely because of the Malthusian basis of natural selection. Traits that give any organism a selective advantage over its rivals will spread through the gene pool, unless and until they overwhelm the environment and reach the limits of its carrying capacity. An organism that is too successful will ultimately suffer a crash from overpopulation, depletion of resources, and so on. The success of sulfur bacteria means the poisoning of all other organisms; or, to give another example, the rise of photosynthetic organisms 2 billion years ago poisoned and killed the then-dominant anaerobic microbes that had composed the overwhelming majority of life-forms up to that time.

Now, biologists in recent years have given careful attention to the evolution of cooperation and altruism as means of averting these dangers. For instance, in an environment of cooperating organisms, a cheater will outperform the cooperators, and through natural selection will eventually drive them into extinction, thus leading to an environment of cheaters who no longer have access to the benefits for all of cooperation. But this prospect can be averted, and altruism can be maintained within a group, if the cooperators evolve mechanisms to detect, and punish or otherwise discipline, the cheaters. Scenarios like this have led to something of a revival of the once-discredited notion of “group selection” (a group all of whose members benefit from cooperation will be able to outperform a group dominated by cheaters).

Be that as it may, Ward does not see any evidence that cooperation or altruism can evolve on a meta-, or planetary, level. He argues, counter-intuitively but with impressive statistical analyses, that in fact the total biomass, as well as the diversity of species, has been in decline ever since the Cambrian explosion. And he suggests that life on Earth is doomed to extinction long before the heating and expansion of the sun make the Earth too hot to live on. The depletion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to the extinction of all plant life, the decline of atmospheric oxygen, the consequent extinction of all animal life, and finally the evaporation and loss to outer space of the oceans, could happen as little as 100 million to 500 million years from now — a span far less than the 1.5 billion or 2 billion years we have before the sun roasts the planet to a cinder. The Earth will end up much like either Venus or Mars — both of which initially had conditions that were favorable to the origin and sustenance of life, but no longer do (in this regard, it would be quite interesting if we were to discover, as has often been hypothesized, that Mars once did have life but no longer does).

Now, even 100 million years from now seems too far off in the future for us to worry about today. And, as Ward points out, our current problems — for the next century or so — have to do with too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even if ultimately the Earth will die from too little. Nonetheless (and regardless of whether or not the book’s arguments stand up in their scientific details, which is something, as I already said, that I am unable to judge), Ward’s replacement of Gaia (the good mother Earth) with Medea (the ultimate bad mother, who murdered her own children) makes an important point. In critiquing the Gaia Hypothesis, it is really questioning our contemporary faith in self-organizing processes and systems.

I use “faith” here in as strong a sense as possible. The widespread contemporary belief in “self-organization” is almost religious in its intensity. We tend not to believe any more in the Enlightenment myth (as it seems to us now) of rationality and progress. We are skeptical of any sort of “progress” aside from technological innovation and improvement; and we no longer believe in the power of Reason to dispel superstition and to make plans for human betterment. The dominant ideology in these (still, despite the economic crisis) neoliberal times denounces any sort of rational planning as “utopian” and thereby “totalitarian,” an effort to impose the will on matter that absolutely resists it. This also entails a rejection of “grand narratives” (as Lyotard said in the 1980s), and an overall sense that “unintended consequences” make all willful and determinate action futile.

Instead, we turn to “self-organization” as something that will save us. The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society. Right wing libertarians, meanwhile, see the “free market” as the realm of emergent, spontaneous, self-organized solutions to all problems, and blame disasters like the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the current Depression as well, on government “interference” with the (allegedly otherwise self-equilibrating) market mechanism. Network theory, a hot new discipline where mathematics intersects with sociology, looks at the Internet and other complex networks as powerfully self-organizing systems, both generating and managing complexity out of a few simple rules. The brain is described, in connectionist accounts, as a self-organizing system emerging from chaos; today we try to build self-learning and self-organizing robots and artificial intelligences, instead of ones that are determined in advance by fixed rules. “Genetic algorithms” are used to make better software; Brian Eno devises algorithms for self-generating music. Maturana and Varela’s autopoiesis is taken by humanists and ecologists as the clear alternative to deterministic and mechanistic biology; but even the harcore neodarwinists discover emergent properties in the interactions of multiple genes. Niklas Luhmann, in his turn, applies autopoiesis to human societies. This list could go on indefinitely.

Now, it is certainly true that many phenomena can be better understood in terms of networked complexity, than in those of linear cause and effect. It is rare for an occurrence to be so isolated that linear models are really sufficient to explain it. And it is also certainly true that unexpected consequences, due to factors that we did not take into account (and in some cases, as in chaos theory, that were too small or insignificant to measure in advance, but that turned out to have incommensurably larger effects), interfere with our ability to make clear predictions and to impose our will. The best laid plans, etc. But still —

I think that we need to question our reflexive belief — or unwarranted expectation, if you prefer — that emergent or self-organizing phenomena are some how always (or, at least, generally) for the best. And this is where Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, even if taken only as a thought experiment, is useful and provocative. Lovelock is almost apocalyptic in his worries about environmental disruption; his recent books The Revenge of Gaia and The Vanishing Face of Gaia warn us that human activity is catastrophically interfering with the self-regulating and self-correcting mechanisms that have otherwise maintained life on this planet. For Lovelock, human beings seem entirely separate from, and opposed to, “nature,” or Gaia. From Ward’s perspective, to the contrary, human beings are themselves a part of nature. Human-created climate change and ecological destruction are not unique; other organisms have caused similar catastrophes throughout the history of life on earth. All actions have “unintended” consequences; these consequences may well be destructive to others, and even to the actors themselves. Presumably bacteria do not plan and foresee the possible consequences of their actions, and discursively reason about them, in the ways that we do; but this does not mean that ecological catastrophes caused by bacteria should be put in a fundamentally different category than ecological catastrophes caused by human beings. [I am enough of a Whiteheadian that I am inclined to think that bacterial actions have a “mental pole” as well as a “physical pole” just as human actions do, albeit to a far feebler extent; there is definite scientific evidence for bacterial cognition.] Rather than separating destructive human actions from “nature”, Ward suggests that “nature” itself (or the organisms that compose it) frequently issues forth in such destructive actions. The mistake is to assume that the networks from which actions emerge, and through which they resonate, are themselves somehow homeostatic or self-preserving. Rather, destructive as well as constructive actions can be propagated through a network — including actions destructive of the network itself.

Of course, on some level we are already aware of this destructive potential — as is witnessed in discussions of the propagation of both biological and computer viruses, for instance. Yet somehow, we tend to cling to the idea that positive self-organization somehow has precedence. And this idea tends to arise especially in discussions that cross over from biology to economics. Both Darwinian natural selection and economic competition tend to be celebrated as optimizing processes. Stuart Kauffman, for instance, the great champion of “order for free,” or emergent, self-organizing complexity in the life sciences, has no compunctions about claiming that his results apply for the capitalist “econosphere” as well as for the biosphere (See his Reinventing the Sacred, chapter 11). The highly esteemed futurist Kevin Kelly, a frequent contributor to Wired magazine, has long celebrated network-mediated capitalism, analogized to biological complexity, as a miracle of emergent self-organization; just recently, however, he has praised Web 2.0-mediated “socialism” in the same exact terms.

But the most significant and influential thinker of self-organisation in the past century was undoubtedly Friedrich Hayek, the intellectual progenitor of neoliberalism. For Hayek, any attempt at social or economic planning was doomed to failure, due to the inherent limitations of human knowledge, and the consequent prevalence of unintended consequences. In contrast, and inspired by both cybernetics and biology, Hayek claimed that the “free market” was an ideal mechanism for coordinating all the disparate bits of knowledge that existed dispersed throughout society, and negotiating it towards an optimal outcome. Self-organization, operating impersonally and beyond the ken of any particular human agent, could accomplish what no degree of planning or willful human rationality ever could. For Hayek, even the slightest degree of social solidarity or collective planning was already setting us on “the road to serfdom.” And if individuals suffer as a result of the unavoidable inequities of the self-organizing marketplace, well that is just too bad – it is the price we have to pay for freedom and progress.

Hayek provided the rationale for the massive deregulation, and empowerment of the financial sector, of the last thirty years — and for which we are currently paying the price. But I have yet to see any account that fully comes to terms with the degree that Hayek’s polemical argument about the superiority and greater rationality of emergent self-organization, as opposed to conscious will and planning have become the very substance of what we today, in Europe and North America at least, accept as “common sense.” Were the anti-WTO protestors in Seattle a decade ago, for instance, aware that their grounding assumptions were as deeply Hayekian as those of any broker for Goldman Sachs?

I don’t have much in the way of positive ideas about how to think differently. I just want to suggest that it is high time to question our basic, almost automatic, assumptions about the virtues of self-organization. This doesn’t mean returning to an old-fashioned rationalism or voluntarism, and it doesn’t mean ignoring the fact that our actions always tend to propagate through complex networks, and therefore to have massive unintended consequences. But we need to give up the moralistic conviction that somehow self-organized outcomes are superior to ones arrived at by other means. We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen “by themselves,” or to arrive “from below” rather than “from above.” (Aren’t there other directions to work and think in, besides “below” and “above”?).

Whitehead says that every event in the universe, from the tiniest interaction of subatomic particles up to the most complex human action, involves a certain moment of decision. There are no grounds or guidelines for this decision; and we cannot characterize decision in “voluntaristic” terms, because any conscious act of will is a remote consequence of decision in Whitehead’s sense, rather than its cause. Decisions are singular and unrepeatable; they cannot be generalized into rules. But all this also means that we cannot say that decision simply “emerges” out of a chaotic background, or pops out thanks to the movement from one “basin of attraction” to another. No self-organizing system can obviate the need for such a decision, or dictate what it will be. And decision always implies novelty or difference — in this way it is absolutely incompatible with notions of autopoiesis, homeostasis, or Spinoza’s conatus. What we need is an aesthetics of decision, instead of our current metaphysics of emergence.

36 thoughts on “Against Self-Organization”

  1. Interesting analysis. I think no mater how we slice it humans are condemned to a perspective of meaning making and parochialism. The faith is ever present but also disavowed by the deeply faithful. Zizek captures this in a nice way with his discussion of belief and atheism. We believe but often there is deep fear that what we actually believe is actual and will be externalized by our very act of belief. For example global warming. The prospect is too daunting for us to even accept it. Thus there is an implicit disavowal of what we come to know as the fact of global warming. I suspect some human coping mechanism intervenes. Thus explaining the persistent belief in self organization.

    I am deeply fascinated by your concept of “aesthetics of decision”. What would that mean on a practical level? Also you mention Whitehead’s view that every event is a “decision”. I find this interesting but isn’t this mostly just an attempt to interject will into the world, albeit in perhaps a more deterministic mode. To me it seems intuitive to say almost the opposite. That every event is an action, a result, an outcome. This is not to imply a strictly deterministic chain of causality. But rather an appreciation of the already alreadyness of things. It seems to me to put things in terms of decision is to open the door too far for a god or mysterious force that wills existence ex nihilo.

    I think I find more comforting the fact that the universe is an arbitrary and continual process that has no concern for my immediate care or existence. In return I owe the universe nothing. This is freedom. It may not allow thriving, but a niche can sometimes be carved out.

  2. Hello Dr Shaviro; the impression I get is that Lovelock does NOT think that humans are separate and apart from nature, quite the opposite. As with the other theory, it’s because we’re the kind of parts of nature that we are, that the problems are happening. The novelist John Banville, who’s interested in Lovelock, goes along with your line of thought, calling humans “simply the most successful virus that’s gone around the world”. I am ignorant of the Whitehead stuff, and haven’t got enough time right now, though I’ll read more closely soon. But Lovelock is certainly doubtful about “voluntaristic” action on the grounds we’re part of nature.

    Like Gordon Potter, I certainly thought of Zizek in connnection with all this. Also of George Orwell’s comment, “No Christian believes in God the way he believes in Australia”.

  3. I suppose a lot of Christians think that

    a. the world is coming to an end, so they don’t have to care
    b. God will take care of things, etc.

    Lutheran surrealists believe that this is an animalistic world, and that Two Kingdoms theory means that we are fallen, and thus, only a faction, divided into many other factions (Madison’s Letter #10 in The Federalist Papers derives from this viewpoint).

    So you basically need at least two parties (self-organizing against the other party), to block any real dumb ideas from organizing into a one-party system (like that of N. Korea to the left, or Henry VIII’s regime to the right).

    Animals organize as well as they can, I suspect, which is not very well. At least the bigger stuff like elephants and alligators aren’t going to be a problem, except in very local circumstances. Can bacteria really strategize, and attain a conscious monopoly as the dominant life force? I need to read more there — I got the feeling you were arguing that they could take over the way the machines do in Terminator.

    The biologist John Lilly had a drug-induced dream in the early eighties that the machines would join together to destroy all life that had saline content because it gummed up their gears.

    Bacteria kind of need us the way we need China, and China needs us? It’s hard to think in the macro-level at such a leap into the rhizomatic associations of bacteria and mammalian life, but I suppose it’s similar to the cheap labor provided by corporate communism, whose products are in turn valued by the citizens of corporate capitalism, since it turns out to be the same thing, finally.

  4. I thought about the title of the book last evening and wondered how well-chosen it is. If life self-destructs — according to the title, and the brief description of the book — then this title is inaccurate.

    Medea DOESN’T self-destruct. She destroys her children in order to destroy Jason’s good mood about marrying a princess. She also destroys the princess by giving her a wonderful wedding outfit that has been laced in toxics.

    But she doesn’t destroy herself at all. To the contrary, she assures her own survival by contracting with the leader of another city-state to take her in after the triple-murder, which he is then bound by oath to do in spite of her atrocities.

    It therefore doesn’t seem to be a particularly apt choice, which makes me think that the writer is a bozo.

    The thesis would be better amplified if recourse was made to sailing into Schopenhauer’s harbor — his vision of the ID — which in turn ends up as the Freudian ID (Schopenhauer was big at the time) — would be a closer parallel.

    I suppose the author wanted to find an unpleasant female to contrast with Gaia. But there are many problems with his choice of Medea.

    He should choose a goddess, so that the structural parallel remains intact, and he should choose a goddess who destroys herself through over-reaching (the urge to consume more and more and more). I’d go back through Schopenhauer and rely on him more.

    Schopenhauer is such a tight, lovely writer, too. He wouldn’t have made such basic mistakes. The World as Will and Idea — I wish I could come up with the exact goddess that should replace Medea in the title — ERis doesn’t quite fit, — Aprhodite doesn’t quite fit.

    Perhaps Hecate, but she doesn’t quite fit, either.

    Aphrodite comes closest. She seems to be nice on the surface, but is eventually all-consuming, and destroys all those aligned with her. Maybe her.

  5. I don’t think the idea of self organization, understood as a homeostatic mechanism for perfect self preservation, is an accurate description of Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis or that the Gaia hypothesis supports a laissez-faire ecological approach and outlook.

    Earth as Gaia does give a picture of the earth as an organism, as a living body. But what I want to know is how such a picture would lead anyone to believe earth-as-body wouldn’t require delicate and nearly constant care. Every living body does. My body does. If I exposed it to danger, it could become injured. It could be destroyed. I could die. Earth as Gaia could easily die. As I recall, Lovelock gave quite a few examples of exactly how earth as gaia could be so mistreated it would die.

  6. hi Steve,

    I can’t speak to the eco-stuff but in terms of politics, I disagree with some of this pretty strongly. I think “The anarchist left puts its faith in self-organizing movements of dissidence and protest, with the (non-)goal being a spontaneously self-organized cooperative society.” is a reductive straw man. Some anarchists do indeed believe that, but not all do and in my experience with people involved in anarchist organizations this is definitely not the only view. I realize that organized anarchists are not all and not the most visible anarchists, but I think your claim there is overly broad to the point of distortion.

    I also think “self-organizing” movements is a really vague concept. In general I think your using an overly broad idea of self-organization here. I can see how there may be homology between (claims about) ecological systems and social systems and political organization, but I’m not convinced that the homology reveals more than it hides. For one thing, the specificity of what and how (and when the term is appropriate, who) is self-organized gets lost. Getting back to self-organized movements – as opposed to what? Movements organized by someone else? If so, who? And that someone else is organized how, by whom? (As in, is this someone else self-organized? If not, then we have an infinite regress. If so, then you don’t get away from self-organization but just repeat in another location the problem you pose.)

    I think the claim that the anti-WTO protesters were “deeply Hayekian” can only be made by offering a pretty vacuous concept of self-organization, and I don’t see how that claim has any use in formulating alternative political directions. As far as I can tell from the Hayek comparison the only alternative might be some state centered approach to politics. There’s at least as much argument against that approach as there are arguments against the range of approaches that “the anti-WTO protestors” stands in for here – arguably the political efforts of the labor movement in the US are one good example of why a state focused approach isn’t a good idea.

    I also don’t think Whitehead vs Spinoza is much use for these questions – that’s the wrong register, in my opinion. Lenin vs the left communists is a more productive avenue in my opinio, or Makhno vs Malatesta or Luxemburg and Kautsky and so on – problems of organization and movement building in their specificity under capitalism and the capititalist state (also vague, but less so).

    All those critical remarks aside, I think you’re totally right about this – “We need to give up our superstitious reverence for results that seem to happen “by themselves”.” Essentially the issue is that of sponaneism vs voluntarism. As much as voluntarism is problematic it is much less so than spontaneism, particularly in the present. I do think though that if you looked more at actually existing organizations on the left you might find a broader array of perspectives, even among the spontaneist fetishists of self-organization that do exist.

    take care,

  7. You make many striking and insightful points, and right now I’m not running on full batteries, so to speak (wiped out after a day of sightseeing in Kyoto), so I will limit myself to a rather broad and abstract observation. The contemporary “faith” in complexity arises from the reliance upon mediation, that there are stages, feedbacks, interrelationships between us and whatever is out there (markets, the web, the state, etc.). It seems to me that this reliance serves also as a kind of last bastion of liberal individualism – the belief that there is a kind of space, limited though it may be, where our actions have effects, where we can pursue our intentions and achieve our objectives. It is thanks to this space that the world assumes the consistency we identify with a working market, with the hopes expressed in a political protest, the flow of information, etc.

    But there are a couple of hypotheses which express the other of this standpoint, in addition to your call for an aesthetic of decision. The first one is that political revolutions (whether left or right) tend to erode their foundations in the direction of emergence, which is not so much its positive achievement as symptomatic of the impotence of politics itself. John Gray argues that the major legacy of Thatcher’s revolution was to destroy conservatism as a political force in the UK. Similarly, the Chinese cultural revolution paves the way for the acquisitive bourgeois subject promoted by the party since the Deng years.

    The second hypothesis is that the impotence of politics is more apparent than real. I know this sounds reductive, but this generally means, in my view, Locke in good times, Hobbes in bad ones. The movement from Hobbes to Locke was largely what happened through the American revolution and European imperialism. The movement from Locke to Hobbes, on the other hand, usually passes through some totalitarian stage – Hitler, Stalin – which has the effect of chastening and focusing people’s expectations. Recently, I heard a talk about peak oil in which the Orwellian scenario was the best-case scenario, because it at least preserved some form of rule of law. It also struck me as optimistic, because a totalitarian surveillance society requires a state that can consistently post budget surpluses. The alternative to 1984 (good) was Mad Max (bad) and The Road (ugly).

  8. Interesting post, and I wonder to what extent the modern interest in/preoccupation with self-organizing systems is a function of what Thomas Haskell has called the “recession of causality.” I’ve blogged here about the topic.

    One clarification: Hayek, in his early work, at least (i.e., The Road to Serfdom), is not opposed to some types of planning/organization/ state intervention. He is, however, against centralized, monopolistic planning placed in the hands of a select few. This is a common misconception about his work propagated by both the left and the right.

  9. Didn’t understand the Paik presentation unless it’s Hegelian: everything always becomes its opposite. So we should try for totalitarianism, in order to get democracy?

  10. Aristotle does say in Politics that when you let democracy in, there’s a tendency for it to become a totalitarianism of the weak, since there’s more of them. Is that part of what was meant?

  11. Kirby, I suppose my reflections can be regarded as Hegelian, though I would rather call them “Smerdyakovian,” as in the character from Brothers Karamazov, the one who actually puts into practice what others theorize, but with catastrophic results. He exemplifies the following response from the intellectuals, “that’s not what I meant at all!”

    Thus, we will not get democracy from trying for totalitarianism, unless we’re being led by Bokonon from Cat’s Cradle. But there are certain crises in which totalitarianism appears wholly necessary – for a truly green politics, an incredibly invasive regime of regulation, even at the personal level, of energy use would be in order.

  12. Peter, thanks for the interesting response! I just mowed the lawn (very unecological, but the town demands five inches or less!), and feel like I have a lobotomy.

    All activism creates the kinds of catastrophic results you mention, I think, because activist usually only understand one or two sentences of the theorists, and then apply the theory lopsidedly, and with way too much enthusiasm. What are you going to do?

  13. What I mean by the last bit is that theorists generally don’t DO anything, while activists generally do NOT think, or if they do, theorists can only say, call THAT thinking?

    From the turd who shot George Tiller, to the moronic Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, you see what activists are — they work on a tiny trace of information, and almost invariably go too far.

    But theorists on the other hand never do anything, or do it less well than the activists. Even the better theorists who actually do try to get something done (Trotsky) are no match for the theoretical simpletons who know how to get stuff done (Stalin).

    It’s always going to be like that. At least Dostoevsky found some comedy in it. In the Devils, he also writes about that. Maybe it’s his big topic.

  14. But there are certain crises in which totalitarianism appears wholly necessary – for a truly green politics, an incredibly invasive regime of regulation, even at the personal level, of energy use would be in order.

    Sounds like a libertarian strawman to me created to defeat the enemies or freedom or something like this.

  15. Schluehk, I couldn’t tell if it was just an observation, or a militant suggestion. I thought it was just an observation. That, in order to work, it’s going to require way too much nanny-state. The original post seems to be suggesting nanny-statism, too, though. That self-organization won’t work. Is that the implication? I couldn’t figure out what was being prescribed, or if anything was prescribed, either in the opening post, or in Paik’s phrase.

    I think first we need a decent description of the problem before we attempt any prescription. And I think the best description of the natural world’s current state is Lomberg’s The Environmental Skeptic.

    He argues that we now have more tree cover than ever, the water quality is better, that global warming is a bunch of lies (Greenland had massive farming until the 10th century’s Little Ice Age kicked in), and he offers many dry analyses of the Sky Is Falling leftism that attempts to whip everybody into panic. The left, since Hitler and Stalin, have always used panic mode to create order.

    Kim Jong-Il still uses it, as does Mugabe, and many others. And meanwhile, they try to stop all discussion from outsiders.

    But people like Lomberg still slip through, and become the standard reference. He’s a statistician (Danish) and belongs to Greenpeace, but he thinks everything that’s being said is a lie, kind of like the feminazi rape rates of the 70s in which women were being raped at 90% rates, to whip everyone into a frenzy.

    Lots of academics attempt that kind of thing, but it just makes all credibility of any data or arguments emerging out of academia look doubtful, and probably, a priori, with an agenda of increasing the state’s control of the personal realm.

  16. “(Greenland had massive farming until the 10th century’s Little Ice Age kicked in), ”

    No one disputes the effect of climate change on the failure of Norse settlements in Greenland–this was a factor. What was also a factor was the settlers’ stubborn reliance on agricultural practices unsustainable in Greenland, their unwillingness to adapt these practices, even as they became less and less useful to them. When the Norse settlements finally died out through starvation and exposure, the Inuits in the area were thriving–if the Norse people had learned from the Inuits,been willing to adapt, at the very least they would not have died the horrible, sad deaths they did.

    You say, “water quality is better.” I wonder–better from when? Where better? Better now in the US than the US in the 70’s–maybe. Better now in the US than when european settlers began arriving in large numbers in the 17th and 18th centuries?–undoubtedly not. Better now in China than in China in the 70’s?–undoubtedly not.

    “water quality is better”–perhaps you mean treatment of drinking water is better. Have you considered ocean water quality? Do you think that’s better? Is ocean aquatic life thriving right now? Why isn’t there a Maine fishing industry anymore? Is the fishery of George’s Bank depleted because it was over-regulated by enviro-Totalitarians?

    Either we have environmental problems or we do not. If we do not, give me some examples of pristine environments anywhere in the world. Give me some examples of where on earth there is no environmental degradation. Without these examples you might give me, I can only think of ecosystem after ecosystem stressed to a critical or near-critical level.

    If there are environmental problems, why wouldn’t we begin to think of finding ways to adapt? (ie, ways to solve these problems.) Why would pro-active adaptive thinking be so quickly judged to be what you call “nanny-statism”? What are your examples of successful management of an ecosystem by the methods of what we are calling “self-organization”? Can you actually name any? Does “self-organization” have such a successful track record that we might rely on it for managing the biosphere?

  17. “All activism creates the kinds of catastrophic results you mention, I think, because activist usually only understand one or two sentences of the theorists, and then apply the theory lopsidedly, and with way too much enthusiasm. What are you going to do?”

    But I can think of many examples of activism which have resulted in great success–in progress. In the context of this conversation, I think of the successes of fish and game management. Without any regulation, whole populations of game animals were eliminated. For example, in the late 19th Century-early 20th Century, there were no longer white-tailed deer in Pennsylvania. Now of course, white-tailed deer are numerous in Pennsylvania. One could say, “it’s better now.” Yes, it is better now, but it’s better now because of activism, because of regulation. Because of intervention by the state government of Pennsylvania. What seems important to me is that the benefit of this regulation, the return of white-tailed deer in sufficient numbers for hunting, was hailed by all, even though all suffered some restriction on their behavior–this nonsense about any regulation of any kind being “nanny-statism” and Totalitarian didn’t get much of a hearing until…What? I don’t know what happened to our collective intelligence, but it’s taken some kind of hit, I guess.

  18. The original post seems to be suggesting nanny-statism, too, though. That self-organization won’t work. Is that the implication?

    Self-organization has no meaning by itself. One has to specify a system and the constraints in which self-organization shall be sustainable. A market economy that produces crashes on a regular base is no less self-organizing than one which maintains soft economic cycles if one loosens the constraints and defines no outset.

    About state nanny-ism. We know about the effect of state nanny-ism when it becomes too oppressive: black markets and pervasive corruption. I wouldn’t wonder if even North Korea ruled by a militarist, state socialist regime will turn out to have a flowering black market, slave workers and an army that is totally corrupt. So why not assume that the co-organization of public and economical life with private and state actors is sustainable only in a small habitable zone? Of course there is no clear concept of the latter either but the surveillance state is rather none just as a society that splinters into an undefinable number of fundamentalist sects ( or corporations ) that all do their own thing and call their anti-social attitude “freedom”.

    BTW the impression that the current nanny-state is some sort of inverted socialism, making huge debts used to preserve the gains of the riches who in turn will make economical investments is a perverse order that shall re- or deregulated in the years to come. This is my opinion.

  19. Lomberg was writing about the mountainous areas of America (have you read The Environmental Skeptic?). For instance, in the Catskill Mountains where I live the mountains were clear-cut in the late 1800s for small farming. The remains of the small farms are still here in the stone walls. But now farming in this area is impossible to sustain, and the trees have grown back as a result. There were 20,000 farms here about 50 years ago, but we’re now down to about 2,000. Farming creates a lot of run-off, esp. in the pesticides used. The farmers now make better prices if they work organically — and the run-off isn’t as bad.

    In a museum of public works in Baltimore near Poe’s old house there was a whole exhibition about plumbing in the 19th century. The same pipes were used for shitting and drinking. It was a catastrophe. So we now treat the water, and so, when it goes back into the streams from our sewerage facilities it’s actually cleaner than when it was first taken into the stream to help process the poop. And the poop is pressed clean, and treated, until it doesn’t even stink, and then neatly laid into landfills where it acts as fertilizer. Everything is a lot neater and cleaner than the batty nineteenth century, much less the eighteenth, which had leathery wings, if you ask me, it was so bats.

    The oceans are getting fished out, I suppose. There are now so many more people, living longer, because of the advances in hygiene, and the advances in medicine. So things are cleaner for people, and now there’s more of them. The peoples of the bloated and now destroyed Spanish colonial regimes from Puerto Rico and Mexico and the Philippines are fleeing Catholic areas to get into Protestant areas, and the same thing is happening as Islamic people flee their lands and stream into Catholic and Protestant countries.

    Marxist countries have largely collapsed — Marxism never had any idea what nature was, Marx didn’t — romantic bimbo with bugs in his beard. He seemed to think growth was sustainable in his beard. The communists in the USSR drained the ARAL sea and turned it into a mud puddle — from 100 millions of tons of fish it went down to no fish. Now it’s coming back but ever so slowly.

    The notion of stewardship, perhaps, can be combined with some notion of the self-organizing of nature (the notions of Adam Smith), and perhaps intertwine with some Darwinian and Dionysian, and other ideas.

    There are more deer in these parts now. Everybody hits one once or twice a year, and it keeps the collision specialists rather busy. Full-employment, at least in that sector.

  20. “The oceans are getting fished out, I suppose. There are now so many more people, living longer, because of the advances in hygiene, and the advances in medicine. So things are cleaner for people, and now there’s more of them. ”

    Except that I can, against the common background of a worldwide human population increase, compare different fisheries managed (or not managed) using different techniques and see very different results in terms of commercial fish production. Those fisheries which have been managed with stringent regulation are thriving. Those fisheries where fishing was unrestricted have been plundered and more or less destroyed.

    There’s virtually no downside to the regulation and management of the Alaskan salmon fishery–everyone, from the consumer of the salmon to the fisherman to the cannery owner or operator has a benefit from it though every participant accepts a limitation imposed upon their behavior.

    One of the practices which hurt the salmon fishery was the dumping of cannery waste back into the ocean, which fouled the bottom of the ocean and killed fish or the food of fish. Now, cannery waste is utilized as fertilizer which gives another revenue stream to the cannery as well as increasing agricultural production wherever the fertilizer is used. Canneries liked the convenience of just dumping the waste, but with a little regulatory nudging were persuaded to change and I doubt they’d ever willingly revert back.

    Nevertheless, we have to suffer through hearing people describe any regulatory regime as only resulting in economic catastrophe. I could stand hearing SOME regulatory regimes being described as bad, as indeed SOME regulatory regimes are bad. We could have expected to have better and better regulatory regimes as our knowledge of what was being regulated was improved scientifically–this I admit. But that’s not the way we went. We treated regulatory regimes as if they’d failed us utterly; we adopted magical thinking of “self-organization” with its pseudo-scientific ring to cover over our failure to carefully look at what worked and how with what didn’t.

  21. Fair enough — some regulation of industry with government playing the watchdog role is fine. I think

    1. this isn’t “activism” though — as I see activism as individual initiative to spur others into action (Greenpeace, for example, or Earth First! or the kids who let out fur-bearing animals into the cold in a mindless effort to save them, and it results in them all dying off in the weeds

    2. if government becomes the industry (as is now happening to Chrysler) who will play watchdog? This is what has happened in N. Korea. Checks and balances are gone. In Adam Smith you had industry and the “invisible hand” but the “invisible hand” could get slapped by regulatory commissions when it got too greedy or got “out of hand”

    But I agree that there should be different agencies and that they should keep a sharp eye on one another.

    That we still have at least two parties is a good thing, but I’d like to see even more, as in European countries (Finland has at least twenty functioning parties, and they are always at one another’s throat, which I think is a good thing).

    These two parties are like McDonald’s and Burger king. Not too different, evne if one of them offers a Vegetarian BK at 2.29 made out of God knows what.

    No one who actually works in those places and knows what goes into it probably ever eats the food. Same thing for the potato farmers of Idaho. They would never eat commercially grown Montesano potatoes filled with ook. In Russia the people won’t eat food grown in Russia. They know better. They buy everything they can from Finland.

    Probably no one can self-regulate. They need someone from another competing and hostile agency to regulate them.

    REv. Moon owns almost the entire Sushi industry. He threatens to off regulators if they declare his factories unhygienic. In that respect, he’s a lot like Kim Jong-Il.

    But I do agree that regulation by government agencies of private industry is a decent idea.

    But I don’t have any idea if that’s what the original post was about, do you?

  22. I think that is what the original post is about–it’s a critique of “faith” (in a strong sense of that word as sort of a blind, unthinking confidence in some thing or idea) of self-organization, of people or a society or the world or the life world trusted to take care of itself more or less automatically and reflexively, without the necessity of decisions being made of what’s to be done.

    If you do think, “some regulation of industry with government playing the watchdog role is fine”, then I see you in agreement with the original post and with me because with this being true, then for us it becomes a matter of all of us making decisions (even though these could be very difficult to make, with disagreements arising between us on specific cases,) about when we would use regulation and how best for the government to be organized by us to play its watchdog role.

  23. Yes, I am then in agreement, and I do think it should be the government playing the watchdog role.

    We have various regulatory agencies, which I think should play that role.

    Too often it’s vigilante groups without governmental authorization who play that role. I’m against all of those, from the jerk who shot abortion doctor George Tiller, to the clods who destroy farms by releasing minks.

    I think Greenpeace should limit itself to speech, and not do illegal actions.

    Activists are too often wicked in their pursuit of justice. Government on the other hand — frmo the police who catch the bad people, to various other regulatory groups, are on the other hand, fairly good (although of course they too need regulatory oversight, and must not have a free hand to kill and maim those they go after).

    The great difference between western democracies and the corrupt third world is apparently entirely a matter of better legal regulations from ownership of private property (no one owns it in Haiti except the very rich since it requires so much legal work that no one else can afford it according to De Soto).

    Law and order, then. We agree.

    Which is good, I think.

    One of the problems with Dostoevsky’s vigilantes is that they too often take matters into their own hands. This happens in the Devils, and in Crime and Punishment, and other stories. They aren’t appointed to do what they do.

    Something similar has happened in Islam in which self-appointed terrorists go after westerners, and blow them to smithereens (busses in Cairo, head chop of journalists, World Trade Center towers).

    Self-regulation doesn’t work. Other people have to regulate us, from umps to judges.

    Self-regulation is a God-awful thing.

    Even in writing you need referees to guarantee that something is ok (university presses hire outside referees).

    In the wild west of the internet a certain lawlessness prevails. thank you for the civil exchange!

  24. it appears to me that the main difference between the approach of lovelock and peter ward concerns the value of time

    ward uses the broad geological timeframe while lovelock is keeping pretty close to now

    over time the earth will change as it will and we may or may not have an accurate sense of how that happens…ice-ages – extinctions – massive die-offs…while all supported with scientific evidence sort of fade into the horizon of speculation…quite likely things like this happened but how well can we know about them?

    whereas lovelock looks at phenomena of the now
    killing the whales tends to leave mass populations of krill to grow and die off without being reduced naturally by whales so the die-offs produce high amount of corbon dioxide in the ocean which become weather systems…this can be observed…i think it fair to say that scientific observations of mass clearcutting of the rain forests has measurable effect in local weather patterns…and in a broader sense weather systems further from the fact

    rachel carson was able to actually observe and describe the effect of chemical pesticideds and herbicides

    the use of the water from the colorado river results in but a trickle into the sea and in the area around the delta there which was once quite lush with vegitation is now desolate…and fish and bird populations are effected

    i think that’s all lovelock is trying to say

    the other thing is we tend to base our world view on the global community idea even now…we are given over by the media to know and understand the effects of war in far away places on our lives…the treatment of tibetans is disturbing to buddhists in american or even simply the empathetic

    the medea hypothesis seems to posit the notion: no matter what we do in the long run we are phuqqqed

    lovelock seems to be saying: hey let’s treat the planet like it is a living organism…very complex…but at some level everything is tied into everything else…maybe that’s simply attractive because it seems to include sentiment that is both scientific and religious

    tielhard de chardin sj (the divine milieux) conceived of the mind of humankind the collective desire for knowledge and wisdom all moving toward a common point the omega point through what he termed the nuos-sphere…he was rather optimistic that this was a good thing and it corresponds with christian eschatology…maybe he had something there

    i too enjoyed your dialectical overview of this hypothesis


  25. Shorter Kirby Olson:

    “Hey, once I drop the name-calling and actually listen to people, I find they’re making sense.

    Even leftists !”

  26. Is Jean Bethke Elshtain considered a leftist? She makes a LOT of sense to me.

    Communism makes no sense: it offers a dictatorial proletariat overseen by a party that isn’t elected by the proletariat that is in turn run by an actual dictator who forms a one-party state in perpetuity that is supposed to wither away a la N. Korea, or Myanmar.

    It is structurally unsound.

    Give me Madison and checks and balances,
    Give me factions ala Hamilton (letter ten of the Federalist Papers)
    Give me some sense of reality!

    Vietnam today is NOT FREE, China is NOT FREE.

    You can harvest the organs of anyone you want if you are a party member in China, and no one can say a peep.

    Leftists are too often naive. I do however try to be nice to them. Because I am trying to understand their illness.

    Minimally you need an independent judiciary, different competing institutions, etc. It’s crazy to want MArxism.

    I don’t think you can just let communist assholes organize.

    If you do, it always ends up like the mafia. That’s self-organization for you. Vladmir Putin or Vladimir Lenin, Tony Soprano or — Kim Jong-Il, or only too happy to organize the world around their personal whims.

  27. Steve Shaviro’s latest book is on the new offerings in philosophy table at Book Culture up by Columbia University, along with Zizek’s crazy new book on Christianity (geez, it would be nice if that guy would read at least a PRIMER about Christianity, he doesn’t get ANYTHING right), and is also on the newbies table at Labyrinth Books at Princeton. Just thought I’d let you all know. As I go around NYC and environs, I see Steve’s book all over the place.

  28. You are right to point out that self-organizaing systems are not inherently good. They are just the best structures for communicating lots of very complex information most effectively. Which is the definition of an economy.

    I do find it strange that you think the U.S. economy in the last 30 years resembles in any way, shape, or form a Hayekian ideal. Kaynesian deficit spending to keep the economy “strong” have dominated since WWII. The current financial crisis was caused in no small part to a Keynesian approach to interest rates — with the Fed keeping them artificially low (something distinctly anti-Hayekian), creating false signals in the economy. I see no evidence of deregulation, only regulatory reforms that have helped some companies at the expense of others. Crony capitalism isn’t Hayekian catallaxy.

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