Ways of Seeing II: The Mechanical View and the Treadmill of Techno-Fixes

This is the second in a series.  I wanted to write about where we have come from in land use and conservation, what we are doing, and where we could be going: from Pre-modern (Pre-Industrial), To Modern (Industrial, or Productivist), to Late-Modern (Post-Industrial, Post-Productivist).  

The first discussed the Rise of the Mechanical View from the days of Bacon, Descartes and Newton.  The legacy of that view is that we are encouraged to view land in a particular way, not just something outside ourselves, but a highly simplified system that shuts down our options and solutions.  Since World War II the technocratic approach has led us to think at a symptom level rather than to go deep into our understanding of and belonging to land.

My father was a walking sartorial stereotype of the East Coast country boy going to town; aertex shirt and moleskin trousers, with a hat, a pipe, brogues or RM Williams slip-ons,

and sometimes the dog. Two of his favourite things were a laugh and a yarn.Agricultural Treadmill

There were funny stories, deep stories, and sometimes stories both funny and deep. One of my favourite concerned the way to look at land and farming. He said there were two ways to ‘see’ a farm: either look at just the immediate ‘thing’, the symptom, the proximate cause, the concern, and simply act upon that; or you go deeper, understand the root issue, the ultimate causes, the wider system, how the complexity of land and people, and stock and history combined to manifest this ‘thing’. Then you may act differently.

Deal with the deeper system, and the symptom needn’t happen at all.  Treat just the symptom, and you could set up a treadmill of bad, creating worse, creating god only knows what hell.

Dad didn’t mention any of that until later, and he didn’t use some of the words that I used like proximate and ultimate and symptom. First, he painted the picture of an East Coast summer, hot and heavy, where the stock found shade where they could. A lone tree in a paddock might be all that was left of the forest clearing of the past. I’ve seen sheep in summer lined up on the shade of telegraph pole.Shade sheep

Then he’d tell of the story of the summer rains that come. The ground is wet, steaming, it has an evocative scent, especially after the sun comes out, just as hot as before.  It is then that the stock seek the same shade.  And because it is muddy and moist, and because there are concentrations of animals, it is a site that encourages germs and infection. Stock die. Problem.

cattle-shadeMy father, with a twinkle in his eye, would ask, “So what do you do?” And I would reply the way I know he expects, “spread the shade and plant more trees.” And he would play the contrary, hamming it up, “No!  You cut the tree down!” laugh, and take another sip of beer. Then discuss the parable. Not his words, but in essence, either you can think of place as a system of complex interactive relationships and rippling linkages of cause & effect, or as a simple machine defined by a minimum of controllable variables. Either create a system of functions (think verbs) that self-organises into a low input and resilient whole where all the potential of place is realised, or force the farm into machine of parts (think nouns), obedient and fragile, where the potential of place is subjugated by an obsession with grass.

There is a flinty edge to my father’s laugh, because the analogy of cutting the tree down as the techno-fix is what many, if not most, people do.  It is always the most simple and immediate ‘solution’ that attracts.  It is easy to justify, and a choice made from deeper thinking is likely to involve long explanation, and suspicion by the ‘practical man’ that you may just be that worst of all types – a ‘shiny arse’.  To some, if a cattle beast is chewing its cud in the shade, it is not ‘working’, eating grass to make money. If there is barley grass and nettle growing under the one tree, and it is a site for disease, then obviously the tree is the problem.

And it is not just the supposedly ‘simple’ hillbilly or country bumpkin that sometimes acts this way; so-called sophisticated professionals do it as well. One could argue it was the professional technocratic classes who drove that narrow view of land in post World War II New Zealand.  More on that next in this series.

Only the mountainAldo Leopold’s essay Think Like a Mountain is one classic that sums up our propensity to see things in a narrow frame, when the wider ‘mountain’ view
is the necessary perspective for any wise act.

Vandana Shiva referred to this simple disconnected technical view in her Monocultures of the Mind.  The story she tells of the effect of the Green Revolution on the complex socio-ecological systems of Asian paddy-village life is another classic. The traditional system involves many different Monocultures of the Mindvarieties of plants – both rice and others – to provide resilience against the uncertainties of climate and a better quality of diet.  Uncertainty is the ruling paradigm, and reverence, diversity, resilience and ‘minimising-the-minimum’ is the traditional approach, because failure means famine and death.  In addition to the paddy rice, koi carp and ducks provide protein and keep the bugs and the mosquito larvae down, so both health and yield are improved. Vegetables from crop rotation, wild plants, and wild animals (including amphibians) supplement the diet. Seed is saved and replanted. The system is not highly reliant on cash, and much of the system involves common pool resources.

This is a self-organised, low input, resilient socio-ecological system.

And then a technocrat appears who claims to be about to increase yields massively using diploid and haploid grains that are mules – a small point with huge implications. TechnocratPeople are persuaded by the ‘specialist’ ‘expert’ technocrats in white coats, because they do not imagine that one new input into the system will impact on the resilience of their socio-ecological system, which has been working for up to 2000 years (in parts of China – 1000 years in Bali).

Ceteris paribus is the assumption – all else will stay the same.  Which, when you think of life as a system rather than a machine, it never does.
Other things always change.  When you implement an act or introduce a new thing, you never do just that one thing because elements or agents in a system nearly always have multiple connections  and therefore multiple functions.

Clearing a wetland or a forest doesn’t just

Ceteris paribus

Except, that whatever you hope for in the model, you can’t keep real world variables constant, let alone predict all outcomes

create more pasture (you could write a book on the other consequences).  Cutting down a tree doesn’t just stop stock from congregating under it (another book).  Changing from multiple fertile rice strains to one higher yielding mule strain does not just increase grain supply (lots of books).

If you take a systems view, assumptions of Ceteris paribus are a nonsense.  The consequences of any act roll out across multiple and long chains of cause and effect from ultimate cause, to proximate cause, to symptom effect.  But in the Green Revolution paddy-village example, with each new symptom the approach was not to go back and look at the integrity of the wider, deeper paddy-village socio-ecological system, but to treat the new symptom …. which creates yet another system effect, another symptom …. whose treatment causes yet another symptom, and another, and another.

terraced-rice-paddiesIt goes like this.  We have to buy the grain, and cannot save it for next year, so need to develop a line of credit. The grain is indeed a heavy yielder, which means that crop rotations are not sufficient to maintain fertility. No problems; the solution for that symptom is to add fertiliser. But the effect of that is that the carp are not as happy, and so we have more mosquitoes. The techno-fix is an insecticide … on credit. But that means the ducks are not doing so well anymore, but that is ok because the pesticide is dealing with the pests even thought the predator-prey balance is seriously out of whack so we need to buy yet more pesticide because pest numbers have never been so high. But the amphibian wild food is suffering and our free protein from koi, ducks and amphibians is therefore seriously depleted. Never mind, on more credit we can buy protein.  ducks-in-the-rice-paddyWith all this building credit, we need to shift our farming focus from resilience and sufficiency whatever the weather pattern, to repaying the creditor, or else we lose our land.  And so we increase the planting of grain for market sale by stopping crop rotations.  But that crop-rotation provided soil improvement as well as vegetables, and now they are both diminished, which means the ‘solution’ is for one, yet more fertiliser, and for the other is buying our greens …. on more credit.

Gross Domestic product is booming of course, and the creditor – usually the largest landowner in the village – is foreclosing on the debt of those smaller farmers who got into debt once again to buy more seed grain on the hope (and prayer) that next year the grain price will be higher so they can repay the crippling debt. But unfortunately – just as happened to the US Dustbowl farmers of the 1930s – the high grain production has led to a surplus and a lower price.  Sale, despair, suicide, the exit from the land to the slums of the city, there to provide labour for the sweatshops.  I am only touching on some of the system effects here.  Think of the potential downstream ecological, resource depletion, psychological, sociological and political effects.

So now the larger landowner or bank is a lot bigger, while the socio-ecological system has collapsed, though the GDP is a thing of praise (and gets all the headlines because the corporate suppliers and chief beneficiaries of all the new bright shiny GDP churn out the press releases and talk to the politicians to keep the treadmill going).  And the GDP is set to get even bigger with the rise in yet more cash to deal with the pollution and social fallout.

This is now a mechanical exercise in agronomy, with humans set apart from the biosphere and culture potentially destroyed, with an increased demand for finite artificial inputs and credit, with little resilience. The industrial model applied to a place to which people once belonged.

Welcome to just one example of the Techno-fix Treadmill that many professionals like to call ‘progress’ or ‘development’.  In land use it is linked strongly into increased production, decreasing real price, and pressures to decrease costs still further to the detriment of rural community and our land.  the_technological_treadmill_1958_0It is exacerbated by the fraught nature of the beast going ever faster, a gerbil on a wheel.  Margins are squeezed, prices are down, the bank is on the phone, costs are up, and there is all too much psychological pressure to think creatively or deeply, and therefore we just act.  We cut the tree down.  We apply more fertiliser and hope.  We fight for the irrigation scheme without considering the implications.

This techno-fix treadmill is not wisdom. Every step is an apparently rational act, but blind to system, to meaning, to belonging, to ultimate end point, and therefore nothing short of postcolonial_imagea rational pursuit of insane ends. But all of it is completely justifiable to those with faith in technology as the solution.  More irrigation, land clearing, swamp draining, fertiliser applying, drug producing, with all the accompanying displacement and dehumanisation.

Within a mechanical view of life, the wit of science, technology, economics and finance dictate the making of the world into a dystopian place without soul.  A systems view of life puts the ken of local knowledge, belonging, values, practical wisdom and a sense of the whole at the centre of how we make policy and choices in this world.  Science, technology, economics and finance are good tactical servants, but appalling strategic masters.

We need the wisdom to Think like a Mountain when we consider our land use futures.  We need to get beneath the surface of things, dig deep into the system, into the intuitive, the knowing that we have when we are in and of a place, and belong.  And have more faith in the wisdom of place.


Chris Perley

Chris Perley is an affiliated researcher at Otago University’s Centre for Sustainability with a governance, research, management and policy background in provincial economies, rural sociology and land use strategy.

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3 Responses to Ways of Seeing II: The Mechanical View and the Treadmill of Techno-Fixes

  1. Makere says:

    Reblogged this on The Turning Spiral and commented:
    Another excellent post by Chris Perley and the need to drastically rethink our direction.

  2. cjkperley says:

    Reblogged this on Chris Perley's Blog and commented:

    I end up getting buried in arguments with technologists about GE vs no-GE and it really is pointless unless we can go a step deeper into the *context* of how and where we apply science and technology. I am accused of being anti-science because I challenge the technological thrust. I am not. But science needs a context within a wider knowledge system, as well as a wider world of effects that ripple out from any act we do. Science, by its very nature, does not pretend to be overly concerned with those wider system effects because of its focus on a particular question. And yet we need to apply that concern for the wider system if we are to make wise decisions and govern well.

  3. Pingback: The Systems View – But what else have you done? | Chris Perley's Blog

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