Monday, 16 February 2015

Unscrambling Eggs in a Panarchy

Mike Wright rises to a blogger challenge

First things first... I feel it needs mentioning that this blog topic has neither been conceived in, nor born from the fertile womb of, my own mind; it is not my brainchild. The idea was in fact left in my virtual care via a figurative ‘basket on the doorstep’ (an e-mail), with an accompanying note suggesting I raise it out here in the public space. That being said, I have attempted to invoke the spirit of those ‘Three Men And A Baby’ of Hollywood comic legend (played by, as I recall, Ted Danson, Tom Selleck, and… that other guy), to love and nurture this idea as if it were my own. Still, I feel I must at this point send out an apology to the (real) biological ‘parent’ of the notion, an apology in advance if the idea doesn’t quite turn out how you intended it; I did my best.

Let’s crack on then. First, the title. If you’re anything like me, you probably read the blog title and thought, “Eh!?” And after that, you probably thought, “Mmmmm… scrambled eggs!”

But if you’re not like me, and you’re more like, say, an expert in etymology, or a human encyclopaedia, you may have instead said to yourself, “Ah yes; ‘System’, from the Greek systema, meaning organised whole, a whole compounded of parts or a set of correlated principles, facts, ideas, etc.”

You may have also then mused over the fact that Panarchy is a conceptual term first coined by Belgian philosopher, economist, and botanist Paul Emile de Puydt in 1860, referring to a specific form of governance (-archy) that would encompass (pan-) all others...

And then again, if you’re like me, you may have responded by saying, “Sure, but did somebody mention scrambled eggs, though?” If we treat ‘scrambled eggs’ as a metaphor in this case (sigh – I want eggs now!), we may wish to tackle this proposition: Can processes or systems be undone or reversed once they have been put in place? And if so, why would we wish to do this? 

If we interpret the above definition of Panarchy in its widest sense, we could say that the Universe or Existence itself is one (or perhaps One). We could perhaps identify the component systems and processes that function to make the Universe ‘work’,’ as Natural Rules or Laws. (An example of this would surely be Gravity.) If we were then to ask our question as to whether we could undo this system or law, I would expect the answer to be the same as that delivered from a stressed-out waitress during a busy breakfast service in response to a customer demand to have an order of eggs unscrambled in favour of having them poached… In short, “No chance. Scrambled or nothing!” And hey, let’s face it, if it’s a choice between Existence and its governing principles, or Absolute Nothingness… I would expect most people to settle for their eggs scrambled!

It seems wise to accept immutable systems which facilitate our existence as they are, then. But what about those systems that we have designed and implemented ourselves? In the realm of Science and Technology, it may be said that things are changing by the minute. It would, therefore, seem unlikely that any system we implement will not at some point become outdated or obsolete, due to an advancement in our understanding of the world and its ever fluctuating conditions. For example, advancements in the manner we are able to send and receive messages have left many carrier pigeons unemployed and bereft of purpose; forced into an itinerant lifestyle, wandering between train stations and town squares, as you may have seen for yourself.

Both the computer and the Internet have changed the way in which we process, store and disseminate information, as well as providing faster means of communication and commerce. Advancements in Medical Science have meantime fundamentally changed the methods and processes by which we receive treatment and care. Developments have also impacted our Legal Systems in relation to the question of when in our development we can be considered to be a Human Being.

It seems, then, there has been no end to the process of scrambling and then unscrambling of some sort of eggs (or at least throwing them in the bin and starting again) when it comes to the systems we use to govern ourselves individually and as a society. It may even be necessary to do this. Lance Gunderson and C.S.Holling, in their great little book Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Systems of Humans and Nature for instance explain Panarchy, in the sense of a theory, as ‘the structure in which systems, including those of nature (e.g., forests) and of humans (e.g., capitalism), as well as combined human-natural systems (e.g., institutions that govern natural resource use such as the Forest Service), are interlinked in continual adaptive cycles of growth, accumulation, restructuring, and renewal… (with an) essential focus to rationalize the interplay between change and persistence, between the predictable and unpredictable.’

This interplay, between ‘change and persistence’, seems to be the key dynamic in our decision to implement or adopt a new system in place of the old, or where there was not one before. After all, a system is only good for as long as it is useful.

But there is also a case for perhaps avoiding adopting a knee-jerk reaction to change with the introduction of a new short-term strategy. David Suzuki has expressed concerns that, ‘Rapid population growth and technological innovation, combined with our lack of understanding about how the natural systems of which we are a part work, have created a mess… If we pollute the air, water and soil that keep us alive and well, and destroy the biodiversity that allows natural systems to function, no amount of money will save us.

I think this adds a new dimension to the topic of systems - and what we view as a “good” or “useful” one. The adoption of a system designed to make things better or faster in one aspect of our lives could have a detrimental impact to another sphere of our existence (may I turn your attention once again to those poor pigeons!). The use of fossil fuels and the impact on the environment may be one example of this; it could be argued that the recent global financial crisis is another. Therefore, it may be wise to consider, when we are thinking of creating any new system, as to how the manipulation of the component parts affects the organised whole and whether this would be a beneficial change.

In terms of the issue of ‘unscrambling eggs in a Panarchy’, therefore, it may be prudent every once in a while to consider whether instead of scrambling some eggs, an omelette may be the wiser choice? 

And I know what you are thinking now. Mmmmm. Some omelette!

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