Everything Relates (2)

Everything relates; only some things connect. We live in a universe of relations, not an environment of connections.

One of the fascinating things about the Renaissance is the “discovery” of perspective and how it related to the detailed drawings, paintings and sculptures that depicted the human body in such a realistic way.

Associated with the anatomical detail, of course, was anatomical dissection – something akin to a UFC match today, as spectators thronged the galleries watching anatomists pull out and display cadaver parts ostensibly in the interests of medical education.

The other side of this macabre interest, however, was the desire to mimic or replicate the mechanical motions of the body. Underneath the skin was something anatomists now recognized as a mechanism, as they figured out how bones and muscles worked together to create the mechanics of movement. Illustrations in surgical texts included cut-away drawings of parts, like the hand, where the movements were associated with different cogs and levers. It is not a surprise that the keenest interest in anatomy and structure was associated with one of the great engineering minds of the Renaissance, for Leonardo da Vinci saw in both the body and the machine parallels to be envisioned and exploited.

It is no leap to see in this the origins of the mechanical metaphor that reaches its high water mark by the early nineteenth century. The universe itself is a giant mechanism, perhaps started by a Deity, but needing no further intervention as the mechanism itself took over and developed in a predictable fashion from that point.

The trajectory of the problem with connections, therefore, extends back at least 500 years. There is a fundamental flaw in understanding the universe as a mechanism, whether everything is unfolding mathematically unfolding from the Big Bang to the present or whether it is one in which organisms are explained in a linear and connected fashion. The basic truth, that life is not mechanical and that organisms are not machines, seems not to be understood.

It’s a problem with language – we talk about connections, not relations, as though the universe and everything in it was part of some giant Mechano set that we could build and rebuild if we only had the right pieces. The mechanical metaphor and its associated vocabulary dwarves any other representation of life these days and creates too simplistic an understanding of natural systems. It also presumes an ability to understand and manipulate natural systems successfully to suit human objectives.

If we want to understand an elephant, it seems we begin by slicing and dicing it into its component pieces. While we learn much about its structure and anatomy, we can never reassemble the pieces into a real elephant again. We also learn little about what it means to be an elephant, or to be part of system that includes them, when we use such methods.

If we want to understand the physical universe, we look for ultimate particles, and build bigger and bigger machines to smash things smaller and smaller, to the point that the only limit on how small we can go is how big a machine we can build.

Nor do advances in biology change this predisposition to the mechanical and the connected. Whereas physicists had essentially dismissed the traditional idea of a material universe in the 1920s, with the discovery of DNA in the 1950s, biologists and geneticists reintroduced it as an explanation for inheritance and thus for forms of life itself.

So, we talk about environmental impact, when the only thing with an impact is a hammer. How does it shift our view of our relations with the earth, if we can only conceive them in terms of minimizing a (negative) impact, instead of seeing the interrelationships we have with all elements of the Earth system? Even the environmental footprint, as powerful a symbol as it is for depicting our exploitation of the planet, substitutes crude interference for understanding the weave of all life, including our own.

We talk about connections, leaving ourselves only poor, linear tools to analyze systems that are not. We try to understand system complexity in terms of linear causality, looking for causal connections that will never be found. The precautionary principle, that we should not engage in an activity (especially an irreversible one) until we know for sure that the results will be benign, leads to mystified paralysis and is therefore rejected out of hand. Instead of following a principle of precaution, we assume we can fix anything that breaks.

So, Nature is reduced to a bucket of bolts. We assume the role of Her mechanic, changing, connecting, fixing, recreating and (dare we say it?) improving what we find to better suit our own wisdom and purposes.

And yet, we live in a universe of relations among all the elements of the Earth system, related in ways more subtle than we can begin to imagine. We can talk later on about the relations among people, but consider the way humans and animals relate – cats, dogs, and other pets – and the ways that kind of rapport shapes how people live. Why is it that some people have a “green thumb,” an instinctive understanding of what plants need to grow and thrive? Or others who can look on a farm of a plot of land and know what needs to be done or allowed to keep it in a healthy balance?

If we had the Buddhist capacity to see down to the smallest of all things, to see into the centre of the web of life, then we would understand why and how all the universe relates, but we don’t.

It’s good to make those causal connections, to see where one part fits into another and why, but it is both misleading and dangerous to think any great understanding results. It is certainly not a path, moreover, that leads to a sustainable future.

If the idea could be summed up in a phrase that makes many people twitchy, we need to replace causal connections with acausal relationships if we want to understand the Earth systems with which we are engaged and within which we live.

Ecological systems theory requires us to move beyond linearity. This is complicated enough, but when we conceive of sustainability in a planetary context, we also need to need to understand nature, culture and society as interrelated systems.

At this point, the philosophical and methodological navigation system of western science and technology seizes up and refuses to provide any direction at all. Our cultural GPS system is therefore no help at all when we turn to it to get directions toward a sustainable future.

We need to recalibrate the whole system, beginning with ourselves, and to conceive of sustainability in ways that bring the Old Savage out of the Stone Age and into the 21st century.

It’s a problem that comes from living in two universes at once.