Cleaning house, tossing books, for Christmas

Cleaning house: scouring science, business and theology with ecological resilience.

One largely unrecognized Christmas tradition we all celebrate is called cleaning house.  At our house, we have a more radical version related to the Масленица of Ukraine.  A first step is getting the stacks of journals/magazines, papers and books off the floor.  A couple of stacks had been there so long, a mask I’d brought from Kenya a year and a half ago had gathered dust on top of them.  About half-way down this stack, were a bunch of theology books.  They went into a box for the storage unit.  So did a bunch of manuals on business development.  All the science journals also found new homes in boxes in the shed.

Getting science, business and theology out of your hair is quite a relief.  They are annoying, pesty little concepts.  My many years in the liberal arts taught me that.  But the liberal arts had also gotten me away from Nature.  One year I was so busy studying that I missed Fall entirely.  One day it was summer, the next time I noticed, the leaves had all fallen and it was cold.  My entire liberal arts experience was similar.  One day I’m so excited about learning sociology and social psychology and economics and history.  Then I wake up a few years later realizing I’d taken all the courses, gotten almost all A’s, published papers, taught hundreds of students, and found out the social sciences are a huge growth only just barely attached to Nature.  Much like a big wart attached by a slender piece of skin to an otherwise flawless body.  You can learn some useful things by studying warts.  But in the end, you’ll only know about warts.

So, I decided to explore the regions of knowledge furthest from the liberal arts: agronomy, genetics and Christianity.  I switched over to the sciences and along the way became an active member of various churches.   I did scientific research, published papers, helped build churches. I was asked to speak at scientific conferences, preach at churches.

Becoming simultaneously immersed in science and religion might seem contradictory until you realize I was soaking up the Dutch, German and Scottish traditions which led to both the protestant reformation, the industrial revolution and, eventually, science.  These same traditions also led to what we call business[1].  And I’ve followed that tradition and helped farmers start businesses in about 30 countries.

Yet I’m boxing up all those business manuals, science journals and theology texts and putting them in storage.  Why?  It’s all the fault of ecological resilience.

Let me explain.  For almost twenty years, I’ve been away from academia doing the practical work of helping farmers get new businesses started and starting new ag entrepreneurship programs.  In the last few years, consumers have gotten more and more interested in buying food produced locally and naturally.  Farmers are trying to provide this local food and I’ve been working with several to set up businesses to do that.  Together they are creating a local food system to provide healthier food from local farms for central Arkansas consumers.  To assist this work, I began to explore how some local food systems manage to thrive and survive while others fail or never take root.

I found out that such things (sustainable systems in agriculture) are studied in ecology as resilient ecosystems.  Though similar in many goals, researchers in sustainable agriculture and ecosystem resilience have diverged.  Resilience research has focused on understanding the adaptive cycles of ecosystems and the qualities of ecosystems which make them resilient in the face of disturbances.  Sustainable agriculture research focuses on creating systems which are profitable, environmentally sound and social just.  In its focus on such legal and moral goals[2], sustainable agriculture research sometimes forgets that a system can achieve all these goals but not endure.  If it doesn’t endure, a system cannot be sustainable.  Ecological resilience research maintains the goal of understanding how systems endure.

Sustainable agricultural systems must last.  That’s the bottom line.  A food system which doesn’t last is not sustainable.  Our problem is that we don’t just want the system to last, we want it to last and produce all the benefits (profit, environmental services, social justice, etc.) we desire.   To get those benefits, we need to first understand how systems last, how systems rebound from disturbance, why some systems dissolve and other systems endure.  That’s what some resilience-oriented ecologists, especially in Europe and Australia, have not only studied for years but are beginning to apply to a variety of systems far removed from pristine natural systems.

The study of ecological resilience encompasses all social and biological disciplines.  Any practice, belief, theory can be subjected to the ecological resilience test: does it help the whole system respond to disturbance?

This test makes us take a new look at a couple of the goals of modern agricultural research: efficiency and environmental protection.  Both are so revered, they are sacrosanct in modern agriculture[3].    Ecological resilience research, in contrast, shows that the most efficient systems are sometimes the least resilient to disturbance.  The just-in-time supply chains so beloved by efficient businesses can lead to collapse of the whole system when the chain is disrupted.  Components of a system which seem useless and inefficient can save the system from disaster.   The most efficient system is geared to a particular set of external conditions.  When those conditions change, the highly efficient system may not even survive.  Flexibility and diversity are more characteristic of resilient systems than efficiency.

Alongside efficiency, environmental protection is one of the top avowed goals of agricultural systems.  Many advocate highly intensive agriculture so we can set aside land to protect[4].  The ecological resilience perspective recognizes that man is a part of all ecosystems and has always modified them.  The only question is how we modify them.  Increasing soil organic matter through burning in temperate[5] and tropical[6] regions and selection of plants and animals are some of the many ways preindustrial peoples created more resilient ecosystems.

While we’re banishing the old idols of efficiency and environmental protection, we might as well go all the way.  Did you ever notice how research areas which can’t really predict much of anything and seldom come up with testable hypotheses are the quickest to add “science” to their name?  Physics, biology, chemistry don’t need such labels.  We know they are sciences.  So when someone comes up with the term “sustainability science”, you can be pretty sure they are claiming something they aren’t.

Those who research sustainability are nearly always trying to design systems which achieve specific objectives.  No matter how laudable these objectives, this is the work of an engineer, not a scientist.  Good engineers are confident in their abilities and everyday see the failings of abstract science.

The formal knowledge we call science just puts into symbolic language the tacit knowledge of an effective manager.

Great!  Nice to have a clean house, scoured of science, business and theology by ecological resilience.

[1] Business first came to refer to “trade and commercial engagement” in the mid-1700s. The areas where the Protestant Reformation was strongest later saw the foremost achievements in science and industry as first noted by Max Weber and in more detail by Young, 2009.

[3] For a typical example of the focus of agricultural scientists on efficiency and environmental protection, see: Sayer, J. and Cassman, K.G. 2013. Agricultural innovation to protect the environment. PNAS, 110:8345-8348.

[4]E.g., Sayer and Cassman, ibid.

[5] Kaplan et al., 2009. Quarternary Science Reviews 28:3016-3034.

[6] Lehmann et al. (Eds.), 2003.  Amazonian Dark Earths: Origin, Properties and Management.  Amsterdam: Kluwer.

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