Sunday, August 28, 2011

A PROPOSITION ABOUT COMPLEX TRADITIONS


            The proposition is this: Traditional small-scale farmers have a knowledge base that is fundamentally sound, and that knowledge base is structurally similar to the growing scientific understanding of ecological complexity.  It is a proposition that may stir a dichotomous response, at least initially.  On the one hand I suspect that there will be those who say, that’s obvious, we have known that for years and it is simply not news for anyone vaguely familiar with anthropological or rural sociological work.  On the other hand, there is certain to be an angry rebuke, noting that excessive reliance on traditional knowledge is frequently nothing more than romantic claptrap and the modern science of ecology relates to traditional knowledge much as modern aviation might relate to belief in the reality of the wings of Icarus.
            If my proposition seems too obvious to bother with, I argue that recent advances in the field of academic ecology have changed the way we look at ecosystems.  Rather than the ordered equilibrium-like processes formerly thought to underlay assemblages of species, a residual of Newton’s world view, new computer-based analytical techniques have been brought to bear on ecosystem dynamics.  We now understand that issues such as complex network structures, spatial dynamics, nonlinearities and time lags, create unusual expectations and challenge older notions of stability and sustainability (including such new buzzwords as resilience and resistance among others).  Furthermore, new molecular tools have provided a new lens on processes as they happen in nature, complimenting the experimental approach that ecology had adapted in the decades of the 70s and 80s.  Putting these two things together, complex theoretical approaches and new examination tools, we have a new ecology, one based as much on the insights of complex systems as on natural history, and one which rejects the naïve assumptions of the Newtonian world view and its magical clockworks universe. 
            If my proposition seems too romantic, I argue that the transformation of world agriculture at the end of World War II ignited a passion of irrational exuberance that has led to meltdown after meltdown, from massive pesticide resistance to hypoxic ocean zones, such that the wisdom of the traditionalists, even on the surface, is worth reconsidering.  Indeed, the assumption that we can continue with the model we developed in the wake of WWII seems far more deserving of the charge of romanticism. Furthermore, a discerning historical lens reveals a structure that has long been with us.  None other than Robert Boyle noted that insights from the “trades,” when coupled with systematic scientific structures, represents a nutritious recipe for fundamental scientific discoveries.  That is, the “wisdom of the ages” is wiser than we think.  It just uses different words to describe things.  As Richard Levins has noted, traditional agricultural knowledge is deep but specialized, while scientific knowledge is broad but shallow.  That advanced scientific knowledge should come to be seen as in accord with some of the principles long held by traditionalists, should not really be a surprise to anyone not religiously committed to the modernist myth.
            In the end this dichotomy (the charge of obviousness versus the charge of romanticism) seems resolved with the emergence of the non-Newtonian consensus and the reemergence of respect for traditional knowledge.  The structure of the universe is no more the result of a watchmaker than is the evolution of an organism, and, through experience and historical memory, traditional knowledge can provide more insights than rigid adherence to a program that was originally designed to understand the mysteries of the Judeo-Christian watchmaker.  Probing the intersection of deep but specialized knowledge with broad but shallow knowledge, in pursuit of the broad and deep paradigm, seems a worthy goal.

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