The Ecosystem Myth

A very interesting article by Adam Curtis on the origins of the “self-organizing human society” myth.

What you were seeing in that interchange was the expression of a very powerful ideology of our time. It is the idea of the “self-organising network”. It says that human beings can organise themselves into systems where they are linked, but where there is no hierarchy, no leaders and no control. It is not the old form of collective action that the left once believed in, where people subsumed themselves into the greater force of the movement. Instead all the individuals in the self-organising network can do whatever they want as creative, autonomous, self-expressive entities, yet somehow, through feedback between all the individuals in the system, a kind of order emerges.

Where have I heard this before? The notion of self-organizing societies is rooted in biological studies of phenomena such as ant colonies, which superficially look self-organized but in fact are rigidly controlled hierarchies.

Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.

Here Curtis shows that James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” has a very clear antecedent.

But we have long forgotten where it came from. To discover this you have to go back to a ferocious battle between two driven men in the 1920s. One was a botanist and Fabian socialist called Arthur Tansley. The other was one of the most powerful and ruthless rulers of the British Empire, Field Marshal Jan Smuts.

It all started with a dream. One night Tansley had an unsettling nightmare that involved him shooting his wife. So he did the natural thing and started reading the works of Sigmund Freud, and even went to be analysed by Freud himself. Then Tansley came up with an extraordinary theory. He took Freud’s idea that the human brain is like an electrical machine – a network around which energy flowed – and argued that the same thing was true in nature. That underneath the bewildering complexity of the natural world were interconnected systems around which energy also flowed. He coined a name for them. He called them ecosystems.

But Tansley went further. He said that the world was composed at every level of systems, and what’s more, all these systems had a natural desire to stabilise themselves. He grandly called it “the great universal law of equilibrium”. Everything, he wrote, from the human mind to nature to even human societies – all are tending towards a natural state of equilibrium.

But this is a Romantic biologist’s wild speculation and it has a counter-point – that all societies are manipulated by those who want to rule – often by force.

Field Marshal Smuts was one of the most powerful men in the British empire. He ruled South Africa for the British empire and he exercised power ruthlessly. When the Hottentots refused to pay their dog licences Smuts sent in planes to bomb them. As a result the black people hated him. But Smuts also saw himself as a philosopher – and he had a habit of walking up to the tops of mountains, taking off all his clothes, and dreaming up new theories about how nature and the world worked.

This culminated in 1926 when Smuts created his own philosophy. He called it Holism. It said that the world was composed of lots of “wholes” – the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole – a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places. Einstein liked the theory, and it became one of the big ideas that lots of right-thinking intellectuals wrote about in the 1930s. Even the King became fascinated by it.

But Tansley attacked. He publicly accused Smuts of what he called “the abuse of vegetational concepts” – which at the time was considered very rude. He said that Smuts had created a mystical philosophy of nature and its self-organisation in order to oppress black people. Or what Tansley maliciously called the “less exalted wholes”.

“Less exalted wholes” was ironic considering what was to come in South Africa: apartheid.

Because, although Tansley and Smuts and their argument about power would be forgotten, hybrid combinations of their ideas were going to re-emerge later in the century – strange fusions of systems engineering and mystical visions of organic wholes.

Thirty years later, thousands of young Americans who were disenchanted with politics went off instead to set up their own experimental communities – the commune movement. And they turned to Arthur Tansley’s idea of the ecosystem as a model for how to create a human system of order within the communes.

But they also fused it with cybernetic ideas drawn from computer theory, and out of this came a vision of strong, independent humans linked, just like in nature, in a network that was held together through feedback. The commune dwellers mimicked the ecosystem idea in their house meetings where they all had to say exactly what was on their minds at that moment – so information flowed freely round the system. And through that the communes were supposed to stabilise themselves.

But they didn’t. In many communes across America in the late 1960s house meetings became vicious bullying sessions where the strong preyed mercilessly on the weak, and nobody was allowed to voice any objections. The rules of the self-organising system said that no coalitions or alliances were allowed because that was politics – and politics was bad. If you talk today to ex-commune members they tell horrific stories of coercion, violent intimidation and sexual oppression within these utopian communities, while the other commune members stood mutely watching, unable under the rules of the system to do anything to stop it.

Of course this Utopian vision reached its logical conclusion in Jamestown, Guyana in 1978. People think that Jamestown was an aberration caused by religion – which it was, except the religion was Christianity and Communism and the Ecosystem Myth mixed together by the clinically paranoid Jim Jones.

In the late 70s an idea rose up that we – and everything else on the planet – are connected together in complex webs and networks. Out of it came epic visions of connectivity such as the Gaia theory and utopian ideas about the world wide web. And human beings believed that their duty was not to try to control the system, but to help it maintain its natural self-organising balance.

At the end of 1991 a giant experiment began in the Arizona desert. Its aim was to create from scratch a model for a whole self-organising world.

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The “bionauts” began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.

And a struggle for power is exactly what you get when human societies form and interact. In a sense, all of human history makes a mockery of the utopian visions of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, for example. I have always wondered why people like to wear uniforms, but then I realise that they are accepting of a hierarchy controlled by a benevolent dictator whom they admire.

The article is well worth reading.

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