Crumb Trail
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Sunday, August 24, 2003
 

Reading through the World Development Report 2003: Sustainable Development in a Dynamic Economy provides a stark contrast to Berry's essay. The report reads as if composed in air so thin that a humble farmer would need a space suit to survive were he ever invited to participate in such a composition. Much of the report has concerns similar to Berry's but completely lacks tacit knowledge of the issues.

This is important because Berry will be ignored, as he has been all these years, while the WDR will be used and referenced widely. Every rent seeker in existence has lobbied the WDR to include their perspectives, to grant them a seat at the table and a place at the trough.

It isn't that the authors and contributing institutions have foul intentions. They're not a cabal of conspirators seeking to exploit the world for their own benefit, not completely. They do all have interests, agendas, biases, careers, reputations and personal capital at stake, but they imagine that they are doing useful work for which they will not be condemned by history.

They are wrong. They approach life as if it were a video game, a virtual reality not much richer than The Sims, and that their cartoon conceptions of people, environments and societies can be modeled and manipulated to implement agendas. They all see the world this way but have slightly differing ideals about which cartoon reality should be programmed, which boxes should be checked on the control lists. They see world governance as a competition among ideals for control of the command console while never understanding that the film will be nothing like the novel, that reality cannot be modeled or controlled by a virtuality less complex than the world itself.

They don't understand people, they don't understand environments and they don't understand societies. No one does. I'm reminded of the saying by Alan Watts:

"Trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth."

Approaching world development from above, as a control activity, gives results similar to industrial agriculture. The difficulty, time and expense of nurturing fertile fields, the muck and mystery of intimate involvement with seemingly capricious natural systems, the limitations and inconsistencies of biological life, can be avoided for a time by focusing on just a few major parameters and optimizing them. Abundance can be reliably and uniformly wrested from natural systems with mechanical efficiency.

But, it can't be sustained. The parameters that were ignored in the simplified models, the externalities considered minor or inconsequential to the primary objectives, are important and can't be ignored forever. Over time debts accumulate, systems degrade, and require ever more inputs for diminishing yields. In time such systems collapse or become uneconomic and are abandoned.

Perhaps more importantly such systems are inhuman, depend on eliminating humans from the models as much as possible and sanitizing them when they can't be eliminated. Such systems are unsatisfying while they work and unacceptable when they eventually fail.

It's not enough to speak of sustainability, to add sustainability check boxes to the control system. It's like painting a red heart on the chest of a steel robot to humanize it. The top down approach, the idea that natural systems can be controlled, is false. It's the difference between subsidarity and devolution, little endian as opposed to big endian, emergence as opposed to construction. To succeed sustainability must emerge from the multitude of intimate acts chosen by humans working and living in appropriately scaled environments. It isn't simply an aesthetic preference, a belief, it's an informed judgement about systems design and functioning.

posted by back40 | 8/24/2003 03:54:00 PM

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