It Ain’t Natur’l

I’m constantly amazed by the persistent belief that humans are not part of the world around us and that we can step out of it at any time we choose.

One way that this expresses itself is by the claim that something man made is somehow “unnatural”. Most people would claim that beavers are clearly natural, that is they are a part of the natural world. Yet beavers have an amazing array of “artificial” impacts on their environment in their ability to cut down trees, build dams, build lodges and warn others by slapping their tails at signs of danger (clearly a privacy violation if you’re a predator). Beaver dams can cause significant environmental destruction through flooding. Sometime even destroying a significant nearby food source. I’m sure that these issues cause a great deal of discussion between beaver economists and beaver environmentalists.Christ Church Meadows 20130902-18

The point is that humans aren’t any different than beavers, ants, birds or any other creature that has learned how to manipulate their environment to their benefit. Technology isn’t unnatural in any sense of the word. It’s the manipulation of nature by creatures that are a part of nature. What is unnatural is to believe that you can be somehow not be a part of this natural world by choosing to and that your actions can somehow not have an impact on it.

There are a lot of ways that a technology, which is good and helpful in some contexts, can be a problem in different contexts. One of our favorites is to exceed carrying capacity by believing that an element of some aspect of the world near us has infinite capacity. The systems/economic label for this is the Tragedy of the Commons.

The story goes that a small village sets up a shared pasture, the commons, in which to let their cattle graze. Initially there’s no problem. There’s lots of grass and it grows back after it’s eaten. Over time the village grows and the cattle multiply, but the pasture size stays the same. At a certain point the grass can no longer grow fast enough to replace what’s being eaten by the cattle. The pasture turns to dirt and the sod is destroyed. The cattle begin to die, the villagers either starve or move away. Passers-by see a mudhold surrounded by abandoned buildings, not the thriving village that was once there. Raising cattle is the technology in this story. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with raising cattle. Many might assert that it’s perfectly natural. The problem is when you raise cattle in a way that exceeds the critical grass growing element of the system. The villagers didn’t appreciate the limits in the system they setup and eventually suffered for it.

Today, largely due to our success at applying technology, we’re bumping into a lot of limits like the pasture described above. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with burning hydrocarbons. We’ve been doing it since the invention of fire. It becomes a problem when we exceed the atmosphere’s capacity to clean out the waste products from this burning. There’s nothing wrong with increasing access to information. It becomes a problem when we exceed a human’s ability to process and manage that information. There’s nothing wrong with preparing delicious food. It becomes a problem when you eat so much of it that your body can’t processes it effectively.

Notice that all of the above have remedies. Sometimes the most effective remedy is, “Don’t do that!” (this is sometimes called regulation). This isn’t the only form of remedy, of course. Sometimes there are technical remedies. In the pasture example, the villagers can import hay from another village. In the information example, we can create automated tools that manage, summarize and act on the information flow according to a set of general policies. Technical solutions that increase carrying capacity are great when you can find them, but sometimes you have to wait. For example, it’s not entirely clear that there’s a readily available technology that will increase the carrying capacity of our atmosphere though there are several that might reduce its consumption. Until we find one, regulation (limiting consumption of our atmospheric resources) is probably in order.

I encourage you to stop pointing fingers at technologies and identify the problems that arise from using those technologies. Atomic energy isn’t a problem, keeping the hazardous materials and waste products away from living beings is a problem. Vaccinations aren’t a problem, but limits in the general population’s ability to understand the risks and benefits of vaccinations is a problem. Belief systems aren’t a problem. We all have them. It’s our limited tolerance for allowing others to believe and the impacts that those beliefs have on others that creates a problem. All successful technologies provide some sort of benefit. All technologies have the potential of creating some sort of problem. If we focus on the problems and not on the technologies we’re likely to solve more of them.

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