Push Me, Pull Me

yin-yang2When people recognize that business as usual is making false promises about the future there is a tendency to lose perspective, as if the end of an existing social system and the end of the world were more or less the same. It’s good to remind ourselves that in a universe of interdependence, every ending is also a beginning and that’s as true for the ending of a civilization as it is for the ending of a pregnancy. In the process of winnowing the astronomically unlikely futures from those most probable, we are well served by lessons about how life actually works. We see through the fog of false promises by insisting on evidence.

We are examining ecological models to find clues to the forces shaping our times. Among the babies being born right now there will be some fortunate enough to live to see the coming of the next century. What will the world of our children be like? What inheritance are we preparing for them?

The year 2100 has gathered around itself a cluster of troubling numbers. Standard scenarios expect there to be a population of 10 billion people living in a climate changed world 2 – 6 degrees warmer, or worse. These numbers imply others, equally bleak if we ask how all these people are going to be fed, clothed, housed and where all the waste they will generate is going to be put. Add the fact that they are unlikely to be able to continue using the astronomical amounts of oil we depend on to fuel doing all this and it promises to be a difficult time, without doubt. Some degree of that difficulty could be alleviated by skillful activities undertaken now but that means talking about it.

In my experience if a conversation pushes people to realistically consider these things, it is not long before someone throws their hands up and says something along the lines of, ‘well we are all going to die by then anyway’ – which I think really means ‘it is all so dismal, let’s not talk about it.’ It’s as if our imaginations have been entranced by a mashup of the weird and all we see when we peek into tomorrow is a zombie Apocalypse in a Mad Max world.

This is not very useful.

Here is where the ecological models we have been studying can act as cognitive dental floss. Turning our contemplative attention to their meaning, we train in the revaluation of values true sustainability entails. What we need to learn we are learning from models of food webs, predator-prey relationships, overshoot and collapse dynamics, atmospheric response to pollution forcing, and peak resource use and waste production in the LtG scenarios. This scientifically valid foraging into ecological reality provides us with an opportunity to participate with our understanding in the great, ongoing flows of life.

The imagination that thinks Mad Max represents the most probable future, whether we want it to be or not, is poverty stricken. It fails to account for the biological resiliency that characterizes the ecosphere. Ecosystems can flip between collapse and complexity, often times surprisingly rapidly. What the ecological models provide us with are tools for thinking about what makes for healthy, thriving ecosystems, as well as what can harm them beyond repair. With this understanding human beings have opened up a path of partnering with our environment. We can heal the damage done; even as we shrink our ecological footprints so fulfilling our needs no longer causes irreparable damage to our one and only home. As the collapsing financial and industrial process continues in the coming decades, the harmful effects of those processes on ecosystems will diminish. In this gap opportunities for conservation and restoration will continue to provide a meaningful alternative to blind and reckless consumerism. We are talking about real world opportunities to do real world work that makes a real world difference. Psychotic dystopias like Mad Max simply fail to account for how man’s will for meaning acts as a limiting factor on our social madness.

When we study how the biological and ecological systems we are emerged in actually work, we come to trust that limiting factors will come into play to counteract any extreme imbalances. Note that this is not the same as saying nature will continue to provide an environment conducive to our species thriving. What we learn from this Gaian wisdom is that both growth and limits to growth are required for the healthy functioning of all living things, at whatever scale we wish to investigate. 

At the cellular scale cancer is the exemplar. Cells want to multiply endlessly; it is what cells ‘like’ to do. Healthy tissue is only possible because there is an active suppression of this biochemical pathway that leads to cellular reproduction by another biochemical pathway that acts as a limit to its growth. Biochemical homeostasis in general is maintained using the same types of paired regulators. Another elegant example is the fine tuning of neurotransmitters in the brain’s synaptic clefts. As the number of molecules produced increases, the target sites become saturated which in turn changes the configuration of that productive apparatus, shutting down further production. Consciousness riding a nervous system is, in some mysterious way, related to just this dynamic.

Or consider a population of herbivores. Their numbers depend on the plant growth their environment provides. The plants act as a bottom-up control. But then, as Lawrence Slobodkin once asked, “why is the world green?” If the herbivores want to reproduce as much as possible and there are still plenty of leafy green foodstuffs at hand, what else is acting to produce the population that we actually encounter? Predators, parasites, and pathogens are acting as top-down controls on population numbers. Here, on the scale of ecosystems, we again we find pairs of regulators at work; growth and limits to growth.

Another word for limit is regulation, and in living things everything is regulated.

This is what life is all about: stoking the fires and then cooling down, expanding differentiations followed by gathering integrations. You are able to read this right now because the level of oxygen in your blood, neurotransmitters in your brain, and thousands of other substances are all actively being shepherded into fairly narrow bands of goldilocks densities. Perhaps stranger yet is programmed cell death, cellular suicide, which seems to turn everything we know about life upside down until we learn to truly appreciate the necessity of limits to growth.  It’s a very odd world we uncover when we stick to the evidence.

One last point about this push-me, pull-me world. Last week’s post mentioned there are levers within system science models; places where small changes can have large effects. Many times this is because it only takes a small force to change the behavior of one of these regulatory mechanisms; a difference that makes a difference. It is something worth considering when surveying the severely restricted landscape of our time’s realistic options.

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