The mystery of misunderstanding the obvious

for http://www.oneclimate.net

I’ve been studying the puzzles of natural systems, how they all have their own individually divergent behaviors, and individual reactions to their environments. Then I noticed that that aspect of nature entirely conflicts with the idea of ‘determinism’, that everything (except human free will) is controlled by its surroundings.

Last year I read a paper written by one of my great grandfathers, Steven A Forbes, an early ecologist, and it struck me how he tried to describe the amazing stability of predator prey relationships in fresh water ponds. He noted the prey would need to show restraint or the relationship would be naturally unstable if their behavior required them consume as much of their prey as they could.

Any advantage would then precipitate a ‘tragedy of the commons’ for themselves. He was describing the necessity of a learning process to avoid local environmental collapses that would apply to every organism in the system. That’s very odd, that that insight would have been missed by later ecologists.

It does appear when you watch organisms that their main activity is making use of what is uncontested and skillfully staying out of trouble, not destabilizing maximization. Then I found out what seems to be the reason why the need for organisms to learn as they go was lost.

It happened, it seems, when ecology adopted the model of physics.

That was in the 1920’s, treating populations as statistical pressures in an equation, rather than individuals interacting with their own behaviors.

Equations don’t have learning problems. How our own learning processes fail and humans regularly precipitate tragedies of our own commons, appears deeply embedded in our habits and conventions, traditions, prejudices, defense mechanisms, etc. etc, and in our most cherished ‘theories’.

It’s not genetic, because I can see it, and notice our ‘theories’ point away from our need for learning, and exemplified by people who follow them. There are other kinds of ‘formulas’, though, that point directly at our needs for learning.

Others don’t find this easy to grasp, though. They may see it briefly, but then it slips. Often parts of it slip in a way that seems to not be quite ‘honest’, letting key insights gained vanish completely without a trace, ever so smoothly, from their loose grip.

The key insight of growth, for example, is that adding to things makes them larger, and when that results in their getting big, it changes them and their relationships. The idea of economic growth, our tenaciously held idea of ‘good’, is a complete denial of change as much as it is an endless accelerator of change.

The belief in growth is that we can double the scale of satisfying human desires regularly forever without ever changing that desire. …Oops!

My own family and close friends and professional peers, all committed and caring idealistic intellectuals, have huge difficulty at this point remembering that addition makes things larger. It just slips innocently from their grasp. I think they’re just incredulous that in might apply to the impacts of ‘their’ own solutions.

‘Their’ ideas of how to solve problems are absolutely never thought of as having impacts at all. That’s not what they conceive them for. That their multiplying solutions might have multiplying impacts, just like all the solutions of the past we’re now desperately struggling with, is just ‘unthinkable’.

Our multiplying solutions unquestionably do have multiplying impacts, though, but you have to look for them without a formula based on the past. You won’t ever find them in hind sight. You’ll only find them looking by learning to develop your foresight.

So, I need help; we need help! I don’t know what experience would change people who have read the history of so many advanced civilizations of the past ending with self-inflicted tragedies, and keep loosing track of simple things like elementary arithmetic. Yes, it takes some care and effort to explain what we can observe accurately, but that’s definitely not enough.

Phil

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Also see my website, a new general empirical theory of natural systems. Follow the blog link for some of my letters, poke around and let me know what you think.

 

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