Note — Sep 20, 2020

The Environment Is Not a System

Thanks to Kristoffer at Naive Weekly for pointing to this paper by Tega Brain from a couple of years ago, it’s not a line of thought I’d seen explained all that often. It’s a good fit with the previous piece, where it spoke of re-using old media and old futures, of finding new ways of talking about new futures; here we see the importance of how we talk about things, and how we measure them. Brain shows us that too much of our understanding of nature is through the filter and language of systems, computation, and optimization. When we talk of forests and the species that live there, we think that we can understand it as a system, manage its growth like some factory. “[U]nderstanding environments to be open ended assemblages of non-humans, living and nonliving, entangled in ways of life.” Is a more humble, less human centric way of grasping nature.

A useful lens to keep at hand when reading about the fires in the American west, controlled burns, maps not being the territory, and complexity in general.

“Ecologists turned to assemblages to get around the sometimes fixed and bounded connotations of ecological “community.” The question of how the varied species in a species assemblage influence each other—if at all—is never settled: some thwart (or eat) each other; others work together to make life possible; still others just happen to find themselves in the same place. Assemblages are open-ended gatherings. They allow us to ask about communal effects without assuming them.” […]

In the last decade Silicon Valley ideology has saturated a diverse range of fields from urban design to the justice system, and this announcement is imbued with a familiar mix of solutionism and teleology, this time promising to transform “the way we are currently managing complex environmental challenges” […]

[W]e must acknowledge how deeply entrenched we are within a computational worldview that assumes the systemacity of environments and under-acknowleges the indeterminacy of environmental encounters.