Dear friends in the blogosphere, I have another sermon on my shelves that you may want to listen to. In 1993, IPCC chairman Bert Bolin was invited to the Netherlands to give a speech on risk assessment in the climate system. Wim Hutter, the director of NWO (the Dutch NSF), asked me to write a speech that would challenge the technological optimism Professor Bolin was expected to promote. My mind jumped at this opportunity. With the help of several people in the humanities and the social sciences, including Professor Kazuko Tsurumi, the famous Japanese sociologist, and Mary Catherine Bateson, the daughter of Gregory Bateson and co-author of Angels Fear, I wrote the text that follows. It is abbreviated; click here for the full text.
In the middle of the summer of 1993 I dug up a young white birch tree growing along nearby railroad tracks, and planted it in my front yard. I did my very best to minimize damage to the tree’s root system, digging a circle with a three-foot diameter. Within an hour I had completed the transfer, but the tree had already gone into a state of shock: all its leaves were wilting, in a desperate attempt to minimize evaporative water loss. But within a day the little tree had completed its risk assessment and had started implementing a rational risk management program. Water flow into the lower branches was restored, except for their very tips, because new growth was deemed irresponsible for the time being. In the upper branches most leaves were allowed to die, except for a strategic few that were needed to maintain a trickle flow of fluids, which would prevent irreversible damage to the circulation system.
I must admit I helped a little, by providing a generous supply of tap water. And when I went overseas a month later, the neighbors took over and made sure the tree was never short of water. In any case, after a few weeks the worst of the damage I had inflicted on the root system had been repaired, and the tree started piecewise restoration of full circulation to the upper branches. It had lost two-thirds of its leaves and a few branches, but at the end of the summer it had enough energy and willpower to spare to develop some new leaf growth. Later that fall it was still photosynthesizing in the little light remaining before winter. It dealt in an intelligent way with the man-made calamity it had to suffer. Intelligence is obviously not the exclusive prerogative of university-trained humans engaging in rational discourse.
It is only a small step from the survival strategy of uprooted birch trees to climate change caused by anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Global warming is often portrayed as a potential calamity to the biosphere. I tend to agree with that point of view. Fortunately, the biosphere responds in a clear, unequivocal way to the increasing level of carbon dioxide in the air. A few years ago, even NASA, not the greenest of US agencies, had to admit that our planet is greening. The United Plant Life Federation of our planet apparently did perform a thorough risk assessment, and has decided to make optimal use of the increased level of its principal atmospheric nutrient. As usual, we humans are too stupid or too preoccupied to notice. But how do plants decide on anything when they cannot talk about it? Should Homo sapiens, in his infinite wisdom, interfere and take the lead because the biosphere is deemed incapable of rationally solving its own problems? What exactly is the difference between ecological intelligence and verbal intelligence, and how can we talk intelligently about something that may turn out to be inaccessible to words?
The first problem one encounters when contemplating man-made risks to the planetary ecosystem is that our thoughts have to be expressed in words. But language happens to be a rather clumsy tool for the study of the kind of intelligence possessed by organisms and ecosystems. On the surface, my story about the little birch tree is just a story. It uses metaphors and figures of speech to allude to self-healing powers that I do not really understand. I am not a biologist, and I do not know the mechanics of the many subsystems involved in the damage-control apparatus of trees, but even if I knew all of the details, the true nature of their self-healing potential would still remain a mystery to me. I would be better equipped to help the tree in repairing the damage I had inflicted, but ultimately I would still be talking, with all the limitations inherent in that particular mode of expressing intelligence.
Let me illustrate these thoughts with a concrete example, one that needs to be introduced for other reasons as well. The words “chaos” and “order” appear to be diametrically opposed, as distinct as light and dark or black and white. But the study of deterministic chaos has made it abundantly clear that chaos and order are nearly indistinguishable. Chaos is the potential for order; order can maintain itself only if it has the potential for chaos. Only chaotic systems can create order of their own accord; only chaotic systems can be self-organizing. All self-organizing systems, including the little birch tree I talked about, continuously operate on the razor’s edge between chaos and order. If we emphasize the polarity between the words chaos and order, we make life unnecessarily difficult for ourselves, because we have to invent contorted arguments to acknowledge that these words are merely two ways of expressing the same idea.
The relation between chaos and order is relevant here because the planetary ecosystem is presumably chaotic, too. If it weren’t, it couldn’t respond to changing circumstances of its own making. Because it is chaotic, the prospects for accurate numerical predictions extending far into the future are poor. The prediction horizon of climate models is finite. It bothers me no end that we have no reliable ways of estimating it. Can the calculations be trusted, even as few as ten or twenty years into the future? And what are we going to do if it turns out that the predictive performance of climate models remains limited, notwithstanding future increases in scientific sophistication and computing capacity? This has already happened in weather forecasting; why should it not happen to climate predictions?
If predictive skills concerning self-organizing, chaotic systems are limited in principle, and I suspect they are, the conventional mode of discourse of science, its way of speaking about reality, will have to be revised. If scientists are unwilling to assign value and meaning, they will disqualify themselves. The climate research community speaks rather too glibly of narrowing the scientific uncertainties, but if that turns out to be impossible, the psychological uncertainties will broaden. A powerful psychological mechanism underlying the seemingly endless escalation of research is fear, the fear of having to change the foundations of the scientific enterprise. But if global climate change remains unpredictable, science will have to do just that. It will have to find other ways of participating in the ecological dialogue, it will have to develop other modes of discourse, it will have to learn to speak another language.
What kind of language might that be? In order to pave the way for a rational ecological debate, we will have to develop a grammar that fits the issue. We have to learn the syntax and semantics needed to talk about ecosystems, the rules for the construction of valid ecological arguments and those for assigning meaning and significance. We humans have to express our own logic in words, whether we want to or not. And because we do, we have to accept the idiosyncrasies of the language games we play, their tendency to limit the scope of the discourse, their uncanny ability to hide the value systems on which they are based. It is for this reason that I now propose to speak of ecological grammar. This choice of terms helps to remind us that we need to talk, not because words are eminently suitable for ecological discourse, but because we have no other universally accepted mode of communication.
Grammar tells us how to construct sentences and how to assign meaning, ecogrammar tells us how to construct ecological argumentation and how to lay the foundation for a meaningful dialogue. I will proceed to give you a rough outline of what may someday become a textbook of ecogrammar. Because I am wandering in unexplored, virgin territory, it is impossible to be definitive or comprehensive at this time. I am navigating in darkness, not even knowing for sure which compass guides me. Please bear with me: how can I communicate without talking?
The rulebook of eco-grammar begins with the observation that any grammar without appropriate semantics is an empty shell. Eco-grammar cannot be limited to matters of syntax only. This may seem a gratuitous observation, but it is not. The prevailing dogma of the scientific orthodoxy, its quintessential metaphysical foundation, is that science can restrict itself to matters of syntax only, that semantics is irrelevant. Science deals with the computable; it has systematically replaced the desire to understand with the expansion of its capacity to compute and manipulate. The scientific orthodoxy maintains the naive hypothesis that we can obtain knowledge that is independent of the metaphors we use to codify it. It is not at all surprising that scientists in all disciplines have embraced the rapid expansion of computer power as if their lives depend on it. The a priori commitment of science is that things must be quantified in order to be understood. But there are many aspects of the world that cannot be quantified. In order to get to grips with them we must use a different grammar, a qualitative grammar that includes a commitment to caring about the environment.
This brings me to another metaphor that clouds the ecological debate. In certain quarters, man is seen as the steward of nature, divinely appointed to use his intelligence to make sure that the errant practices of his charges are kept under control. This metaphor is in flagrant contradiction with the facts, which show that Homo sapiens has done more damage to the planet than any other species, easily equaling the damage inflicted by ice ages. The stewardship metaphor attributes superior intelligence to the human mind. This, I submit, shows reckless disregard for the wisdom of my little birch tree. The idea that we are smarter than the biosphere is stupid and conceited.
The next chapter of the textbook I have in mind deal with ecological syntax, the basic rules for constructing valid ecological argumentation. One of these is the feedback rule, which states that the conclusions of a chain of reasoning should be used to verify the assumptions embodied in the starting point, and should lead to a reformulation of the premises when necessary. The argument that additional freeway construction solves traffic congestion ignores the many levels at which ecosystems employ feedback loops. Freeway construction does not solve anything, generally speaking; it merely induces changes in the locations where people work and live. All ecological reasoning is circular, or circulatory if you will, like your bloodstream or the hydrological cycle of our planet. Don’t be afraid of vicious circles; they are beneficial if they help you change your preconceptions.
The last and by far the most difficult chapter of my eco-grammar textbook deals with the need to develop a syntax in which subject and object are united in a reciprocal, complementary relationship. At this moment I have only vague ideas on how this goal might be reached, but I don’t mind sharing why I feel this issue is the key to a proper understanding of ecology. We have become accustomed to a nearly absolute separation between mind and body, between subject and object, between culture and nature, between rulers and subjects, between government and the people. We pretend our mind is an immaterial entity that can make the material world intelligible by rational analysis.
To some extent that may be true, but it doesn’t help us one bit when we engage in ecological discourse. If you don’t believe me, try running your body, your personal physiology, from your brain. Try to calculate the potassium level in your blood, write a computer program for your liver and kidneys, attempt to give orders to your heart. If you think you can, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Our brains are an ecological luxury, not a necessity. Unless we call our brains to order, they live in a fantasy world, a virtual reality of their own making where they continue to pretend they know better. The overconfident use of supercomputers in climate modeling makes this worse yet. Supercomputers produce virtual reality generated by the virtual reality in climate modelers’ minds. Global warming is a product of Virtual Reality – Squared.
Coming to the end of my sermon now, I will switch gears and tell you a story about a little birch tree. You’ve heard the story before, but now it has become a fairy tale:
Once upon a time there was a little birch tree, living in the woods along the railroad tracks. It was minding its own business, making lots of pretty little leaves, and polishing its bark to make it shine white someday. But one day a human came, cut around its roots, and heaved it out of the soil. The little tree was terrified. It had suffered a lot of damage. The wind had often told stories about humans being clumsy and stupid, but the tree had never realized it was this bad. Humans talk about risk assessment and damage control, but most of the time they don’t know what they are talking about. Anyway, the little tree was put into a car. It was severely wounded and scared to death. All its roots were exposed. It thought it would surely die.
But then a miracle happened. The little tree was put in a carefully prepared hole in its tormentor’s front yard. A large drainage pipe was sticking out of the soil to provide an abundant supply of water. In all its misery the tree realized that the clumsy human cared. And it was not just the person that had transplanted it that seemed to care. The entire neighborhood did. All the neighbors stopped by, some of them even twice a day, to encourage the little tree as it tried to cope with the calamity. Feeling their support, the wounded tree found the courage to fight for its life. But for their empathy, it surely would have given up.
We humans are clumsy and stupid. We talk too much. We do a lot of damage, even if we mean well. We need empathy to make up for that defect. For humans, empathy is not a moral luxury but an ecological necessity.
Empathy, compassion, love.
This illustration comes from the recently published revised and expanded edition of The Simple Science of Flight by H. Tennekes.