All watched over by machines of loving grace (part 2)  

Posted by Big Gav in , , , , ,

I watched the second episode of "All watched over by machines of loving grace" today and found it interesting but mildly annoying.

I'd noted the parallels in the first episode to Fred Turner's book "From Counterculture To Cyberculture", so I wasn't particularly surprised to see Turner make an appearance in this episode, along with Stewart Brand, and the tracing of these ideas back to Bucky Fuller.

What was new about this episode was the repeating of common misconceptions about "The Limits To Growth" and the strange line of reasoning that seemed to argue that the search for "equilibrium" (ie. a scenario where our overall impact on the environment is trimmed to the point where we don't end up having the population crash as we overwhelm the planet's carrying capacity) that "Limits" undertakes is really arguing for a form of political stasis where no radical change is to be contemplated.

While this may have been a goal of the Technocrats that preceded them, it doesn't ring true for the systems theorists.

Curtis even notes that Jay Forrester and the "Limits" crew explicitly said they weren't considering politics, but discounts this as a form of dishonesty rather than accepting that the book is just outlining scenarios around resource consumption, population and pollution rather than being a political manifesto (which would have been entirely counterproductive).

Where is does veer towards politics (in the section entitled "Transitions to a sustainable system", where it prescribes the changes required to make our global economy sustainable), the practices recommended are both positive and a change from the general status quo today - it doesn't read like a manual for perpetuating elite control and forbidding political change, with the non-technical recommendations including :

* poverty reduction
* nonviolent conflict resolution
* accurate/unbiased media
* “decentralisation of economic power, political influence and scientific expertise”
* “stable populations” and “low birth rates” by “individual choice”

Curtis' main point (like Turner's before him) - that the counterculture / hippie / cyberculture ideal of a world without politics is a fantasy - is valid, but he really goes off the rails trying to blame the systems theorists and ecologists for the problems of the world today.

The section about the colour revolutions in eastern europe, in particular, seemed wildly off base - he assumes that this genuinely was a case of leaderless uprising spontaneously organised via network culture - when instead they were orchestrated from the US to expand western influence at the expense of the Russians - and naturally enough faltered once the population realised that their interests weren't really being advanced at all by the changes (just as we'll most likely see with the current "Arab Spring" equivalent).

6 comments

Great seeing you make an original post again :)

You're spot on about the "colored" revolutions that hit eastern Europe. Just look at what happened to Ukraine and it's "Color" revolution, not much of a change in the socio economic status for the peons :P

What's your personal take on Bucky if I may ask? He's a figure that's often fascinated me.

Thanks (and my Floating LNG post a week or two ago was original too !).

I really like Bucky - I think I pretty much said what I have to say here :

http://peakenergy.blogspot.com/2009/02/buckminster-fullers-critical-path.html

"he assumes that this genuinely was a case of leaderless uprising spontaneously organised via network culture"

The "invisible hand" was at work "guiding" the market to an "optimal" solution ;-)

I probably won't get to see this doco, but it seems very strange to blame "ecologists" for our current position. What political power base does an ecologist build from?

OR is the doco questioning those who advocate deterministic ideas/models... but this is not a trait limited to ecological theorists (not all think in the Lotka-Volterra way - used by economists as well).

Curtis was equating the idea of "nature in balance" with absolute stasis.

I'm not sure if primordial ecologists believed this but Lotka-Volterra (and modern ecologists) don't.

The whole thing just seemed like a convenient strawman to beat...

Phrases like "balance of nature" are ok in nature documentaries but does it really have a place in the real world? What does it really mean?
It's like that other phrase heard in Attenboroughs TV shows, "perfectly adapted". This obviously can not be true. If true, evolution ends. Or, true only for the briefest flitting moment for a very limited number during a period of exceptional environmental stability.
My anecdotal experience is that those that use the phrase "balance of nature" are often making some kind of allegory either describing or justifying the (economic) status quo.

It might make more sense to talk about strange attractors of nature - but then that's not nearly so catchy!

Well - I've never thought much of the phrase "Balance of nature" at all and I don't think the systems theorists ever use it.

Curtis seems to have found it particularly irksome, wherever he has encountered it, and decided it means all ecologists are basically evil (for the reason you mention - I've never met anyone like this so its not something that's ever pressed my buttons).

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