Sunday, July 18, 2010

Adaptation and the long view

One blade of grass is vulnerable to all sorts of shocks: drought, flood, infestation, and various human interventions including plowing and herbicides (if it's not the kind of grass a groundskeeper wants). But the whole family of grasses would be hard to eliminate. They are so various, so well adapted to their habitats, so ubiquitous in their reach. In short, they are excellent examples of organisms conditioned by millions of years of natural selection, nature's form of trial and error.

That's the long view of adaptation. Then, there is the human view. We are a species with a short history--perhaps at most 500,000 years. Our natural way of living--hunting and gathering--has been superseded by agriculture only in the past 10,000 years. And, our industrial way of life might be said to have begun a little over 200 years ago. And, yet we imagine that the least tested of our human systems of adaptation is somehow the most robust.

One of the latest adaptations in industrial society has been the microchip, now only about 70 years old with widespread application only about 30 years ago. Like a pioneer species it has spread quickly and is now ubiquitous in the modern world which could not function without it. We know its vulnerabilities including susceptibility to electromagnetic pulse, coding errors such as the Y2K or Year 2000 problem, malicious software that can not only commandeer computer resources but also destroy hardware, and a high degree of connectivity through the Internet that makes the spread of software-related problems easy and fast. And yet, we build an ever more complex world completely dependent on it.

We are now experimenting with even more destabilizing technologies such as nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and robotics that computer scientist Bill Joy suggested might endanger the entire human species and perhaps many other species as well.

This understanding and the gathering problems of fossil fuel depletion and climate change have led some groups to suggest that new technology may not be the most adaptive path. The worldwide integration and homogenization of technology might be analogized to a monoculture, highly susceptible to a complete failure in the way that the grasses of the world discussed above are not. So often we hear that technology will solve this or that problem and increasingly that it will solve global climate change and rescue us from fossil fuel depletion. And, many of us have become conditioned never to think of the possible downsides of this technology. We almost never ask whether the cure might end up being worse than the disease.

Part of the problem is that the threats to the sustainability of human civilization are rushing toward us so fast that we simply don't have the time to do what nature does, namely, weed out poor adaptations over thousands of years. Nor do we seem to understand the risks we are running because of our highly interconnected society. Fatally flawed adaptation strategies won't just imperil an isolated population in one segregated locale. Rather, poor strategies have the potential to bring down all of modern civilization.

The optimists say that such risks are overblown, that so far all the concern about technology bringing us to our knees has been for nothing. But a fair reading of the data on climate change, fossil fuel depletion, soil depletion, water depletion, biodiversity destruction, and myriad other measures tells a different story. What the optimists mean is that human populations are still growing and flourishing. What they leave out is that the natural systems upon which those populations depend for their survival are being swiftly degraded. We are like the proverbial man falling from the 100-story building who, when asked how things are as he passes by the 50th floor, says, "Fine,so far."

The wiser course may be to return to the type of systems that have shown themselves to be more resilient through history: smaller settlements with more decentralized production of goods and services, broader participation in the growing of food and the production of goods, reliance on renewable energy such as wind and solar, and a society that designs its objects to make the full cycle from "cradle to cradle." This doesn't mean abandoning all new technology. It means developing technology that will stand the test of time based on known principles of resilience and sustainability and will do so without risking the wholesale destruction of humanity.


Jim Holm said...

We still are hunting and gathering. So far technology has been a very abundant hunting ground. When hunted out, we'll move on.

jld said...

Indeed robotics is nice, enjoy...

jld said...

Unfortunately turning "Archdruid" isn't any better (a different kind of wishful thinking).

Kim Gyr said...

Thanks Kurt for your always enlightened articles! As a species we have often faced what appeared to be the ultimate disaster/apocalypse - perhaps that is why the myth of apocalypse is so pervasive!
In 1980, I faced my own apocalypse when my heart stopped for 10 minutes (!) while under a general anesthetic to have my forehead sutured following a car accident in Nairobi, Kenya, leaving me without the abilities to walk, speak, remember and all the other capabilities that we learn as infants. Unwilling to accept those new realities, I staggered, walked and jogged more than 330 miles to relearn them, ran my own design business within 5 years, and becoming a professor at one of the premier university-level design schools in the world within 9 years, all driven by the understanding that we were all lost unless we rapidly developed the world's first 105% sustainable global infrastructure, as partially detailed on my website at

I hope that the information and designs there simply inspire you all to do even better, and I welcome all informed criticism of the open-source designs!

CaptainPlanet said...

Myself, I like the analogy of a greenhouse plant as a comparison of the unstable complexity of civilization:

An example of this kind of thinking is the typical greenhouse plant. By providing a greenhouse environment, ideal conditions are made for plant growth and productivity. Successive generations of greenhouse plants become more adept to the environment of the greenhouse. However, if the greenhouse environment is lost, either by the plant being removed from the greenhouse, or the greenhouse being destroyed in some fashion, the plant's survivability is minimal. What was meant to be a way of creating ever more productive plant life ends in complete loss of the genetic strain of what was inevitably a fragile existence. Outside the greenhouse, plant life continues, as having been constantly exposed to harsh conditions, it must adapt to an equally harsh environment (the stimulus). Thus, in the end, hardening of the individual (stimulus) ends in a more prolonged success than simply softening the blow (response).