Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dissensus and Organic Process

In bringing up the vexed relationship between evolution as it happens in nature, on the one hand, and the ways the concept of evolution has been redefined in current ideologies on the other, last week’s Archdruid Report post dipped a tentative toe into some very deep and murky waters. Over a century or more, ideas and metaphors from the natural sciences have become potent factors in the public life of the western world; terms such as “natural,” “organic,” and, yes, “evolution” have been caught up by any number of players in the scrimmage of contemporary culture, and more often than not have come out much the worse for wear.

There’s no shortage of ingenious ways to misuse concepts such as these, but one in particular has had a pervasive presence in our collective dialogue. Perhaps the best way to show it at work is to track the use of natural concepts in one of the towering creative minds of the twentieth century, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright.

Full disclosure probably requires me to admit up front that I’m a fan of Wright’s work, and not only because he was one of the handful of first-rate creative talents to have been influenced by the modern Druid tradition. In his quest for an organic architecture – notice the concept lifted from the life sciences – he reshaped the vocabulary of space and form in ways that are still being explored by architects today, and he also produced rather more than his share of stunningly beautiful buildings.

Still, there are few geniuses whose works are without flaws, and Wright was not one of them. Stewart Brand of Whole Earth Catalog fame has set out the case for the prosecution in his useful book How Buildings Learn (1994). To begin with, Brand points out, all Wright’s roofs leak. This may seem like a small thing, but since the basic purpose of shelter is to keep weather out, and it’s not actually that difficult to design a watertight roof, Wright’s failure to accomplish this fundamental requirement is not a good sign.

More generally, Wright paid close attention to the esthetic qualities of building materials, but not always to their structural strength; the results included a fair number of splendid buildings that could not hold up to normal wear and tear, or in some cases, the simple force of gravity. Thus a great many Wright buildings have had to be torn down since his time, and others linger on as museums, struggling to raise the money to meet their huge maintenance costs. Similar concerns run through every aspect of his work; the chairs he designed were beautiful, for instance, but many of them are acutely uncomfortable to sit in.

The problem with Wright’s work, essentially, is that he applied his core concept of organic architecture in too one-sided a way. The way he structured space resonates intensely with the nature of the site, the purpose of the building, and the esthetic of the materials he used; so far, so good. The difficulties arose because he handled at least two other aspects of the building process in a profoundly inorganic way. The first of these, as mentioned already, was his cavalier attitude toward the structural qualities of materials, and more generally to the “substance” side of Aristotle’s famous form/substance dichotomy. The rain that leaked through Wright’s roofs, and the dampness that pervaded his famous house Fallingwater – it had a stream running through the middle of it, complete with waterfall – and made its first owner refer to it as “Rising Mildew,” are substances as relevant to the architect as the material forming the beams that support the floors. An architecture that embraced substance in an organic way would arguably shape form according to the physical potentials and weaknesses of the relevant substances, just as Wright’s forms were shaped by the esthetics of the substances he used.

The second aspect is subtler, and the book by Stewart Brand mentioned above is perhaps the best guide to it. A building is a pattern in space and in substance, but it is also a pattern in time, following its own trajectory from the first work on the site to the last swing of the wrecking ball. Successful buildings adapt to the people who live in them or use them, just as the people adapt to the buildings; Brand argues that in this sense, buildings “learn.” Many of Wright’s buildings – though there were important exceptions – were distinctly slow learners, and some proved to be wholly unteachable. Admittedly, in Wright’s day as now, the architect’s job mostly ended when the blueprints were handed over to the builder; additionally, of course, creative minds in his milieu were expected to be prima donnas, and his income and reputation depended at least in part on playing that role. Most of today’s fashionable architects suffer from the same fixation on form over substance and process, without the benefit of Wright’s sure esthetic touch.

All this may seem far removed from the questions that have become central to this blog – the twilight of the industrial age and the birthing of constructive responses to its end – but the same three dimensions just considered – form, substance, process – apply to design in any context, from a mud hut to an alternative currency. Mud huts aside, most modern design that tries to be organic focuses, as Wright did, on organic form, and much of it neglects substance and process. Thus, for example, you get plans for “renewable” energy systems that may use sun or wind, but can’t be made or maintained without petroleum products and massive energy inputs, and power equally unsustainable machines or lifestyles.

These same concerns apply even more stringently to plans for social change. Plenty of proposals for allegedly “natural” or “ecological” societies, communities, and institutions have been floated over the last three decades or so, and most of them are natural in the same sense that Wright’s architecture is organic: they represent one person’s best shot at grasping the natural potentials of a situation. Very often, though, these proposals fail to address issues of substance or process. Substance in a social context refers, among other things, to the people who will presumably take up the new social system, but who inevitably bring to it attitudes and behavior patterns from other social contexts and the evolution of our species; it’s notorious, and also true, that most Utopian schemes would work wondrously well if human beings could just stop behaving like human beings.

Process in a social context, in turn, refers to the way that the new system is to be designed, set in motion, and adapted to meet changing needs, but there is another dimension as well: how the new system is to deal with competition from other social systems. When this has been addressed at all, it has too often been phrased in simplistic and stereotyped terms, as by insisting that lifeboat communities have plenty of guns so they can fight off the marauding hordes that feature so largely in contemporary survivalist fantasy. The history of Utopian communities in North America offers a useful corrective; most of the successful communes of the nineteenth century, for example, went under once the founding generation died off and the younger generations found communal life less appealing than the seductions of mainstream culture. The same thing could easily happen in a generation or so to any number of the communities being planned so eagerly today, since a future in which the inhabitants of such communities have no other options is probably the least likely of all the possibilities before us.

I’ve critiqued the Transition Town movement in these essays, but the value of organic process is one thing that this movement has grasped at least as well as anybody in the peak oil movement just now. Those who are still trying to impose plans based on some ideology or other on the fluid potentials of the future might learn a few things from this source. Still, it’s possible and, I think, useful, to go further still in the same direction. One potentially valuable way of doing so is the process of dissensus.

I’ve borrowed that term from postmodern theorist Ewa Ziarek, who introduced it in a book on ethical theory in 2001. As most of my readers likely guessed at first glance, dissensus is the opposite of consensus, and it comes into play when consensus, for one reason or another, is either impossible or a bad idea: when, that is, irreducible differences make it impossible to find any common ground for agreement on the points that matter, or when settling on any common decision would be premature.

This latter, I suggest, is a fair description of where we stand as we face the future that will follow the end of the industrial age. There’s an interesting dichotomy in our knowledge of the future: history can give us a fair idea of the type of events that we will encounter, but neither it nor anything else can give us the details. When housing prices started zooming upwards a few years back, quite a number of people compared that to other speculative bubbles and correctly predicted that an enormous crash would shake the world economy when the bubble popped – but neither they nor anyone else could have known in advance when the crash would come or what the details of its downward course would be.

The twilight of the industrial age puts us in a similar place. Looking at what’s happened to previous civilizations that overshot the limits of their resource base, it’s not hard to recognize the parallels and predict the onset of the familiar process of decline and fall. That process has some constant features, and it’s probably safe to predict that those will occur this time too: for example, mass migration is a very common consequence of the fall of civilizations, and recent warnings about tidal flows of environmental refugees in the not too distant future suggest that it may be a safe bet to assume that the same thing will happen in our future. What nobody can anticipate are the details: what will set any particular migration in motion, what its scale, route, and final destination will be, and above all what the timing will be.

Lacking those details, a consensus plan is not a good idea. If you knew today, let’s say, that the region containing your ecovillage was going to have much less rain in the future, you would make one set of choices; if you knew that the same region was going to have much more rain in the future, you would make another, and so on. If you knew that a million refugees from climate change will be coming through your town, your plans would be very different from the ones you would make if you knew that your town would be far from the migration routes. Since these things can’t be known in advance, though, whatever consensus you reach has a very real chance of being exactly the wrong choice. This is where dissensus comes to the rescue. In a situation of uncertainty, encouraging people to pursue different and even opposed options increases the likelihood that somebody will happen on the right answer.

Dissensus, it deserves to be said, is not simply a lack of consensus. Like consensus itself, it has its own methods and process, its own values and style; the Thelonious Monk CD playing in my study as I type these words might also serve as a reminder that where dissensus is encouraged, and individuals pursue their own visions rather than submitting to a socially based consensus, the results can include dazzling creativity. Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom I began this essay, was a master of dissensus; great artists usually are. Yet the greatest master of dissensus is arguably Nature itself.

Those first inch-long vertebrates who darted about in shallow seas half a billion years ago, after all, did not come to some sort of genetic consensus about where evolution was going to take them, nor did the evolutionary process itself push them in one direction. Some of their offspring became fish, some amphibians, some reptiles, some birds, and some mammals, and a few of the latter are either typing this essay or reading it. Evolution is dissensus in action, the outward pressure of genetic diversification running up against the limits of environment and, now and then, pushing through to some new adaptation: the wings of bats, the opposable thumbs of primates, the cultural evolution of human beings. As we enter a future of new limits and unpredictable opportunities, this is arguably the kind of organic process we need most.


I agree whole-heartedly JMG. Rather than modeling looking towards ego-centered models like Wright (his work beautiful to look at but hellish to live in), social tinkerers would be much better off looking at the book you mention, Brand's _How Buildings Learn_, or Christopher Alexander's _Timeless Way of Building_. Architects unfortunately are classically trained see their work as a design-driven process focusing on aesthetics, rather than a program-driven process focusing on pragmatics and how people actually live in a space.

12/10/08, 10:42 PM

wylde otse said...
As I read it; "dissensus" is a valuable part of a natural process, particularly as it applies to community or society building.(thank you for the clear way you present this)
So we need to consider form, material, and process; "organic" here would mean best adapted to the unique evironment...

Monocultures of monolithic size are not simply "bad" for practicing censorship for the sake of nicety, but unworkable, when an overlooked flaw (magnified) becomes fatal. (say,as in the collapse of the soviet union, where humans did not readily give up their 'nature')
I am left to speculate about another large institution - the Roman Catholic Church...where the injunction "to be fruitful" for instance,is clung to, long after it is evident to almost all that such an idea no longer serves. How come it has survived so it because of impressive well-built cathedrals? (where is F.L.W)

12/11/08, 12:05 AM

anagnosto said...
A relative of mine has an hereditary countryhouse in Minorca, The center is an arab chimney from XIIth century, and new rooms were added around it by generations of dwellers, including a porch under British rule in XVIIIth century. Many of the added rooms have their own doors from outside, and there are many unconnected roofs. The evolution continued in XXth when more rooms were made from the stables, and a swimming pool from a water storage. At the feet of the hill where the house is, a megalityic chamber with possibly an original religious use, maybe a tomb, is now some kind of storage for tools, tomatoes, potatoes and melons...

The problem with Wright houses is that they never adapted after their conception.

12/11/08, 4:43 AM

DickLawrence said...
Of course, the downside of "dissensus" is that it's likely that the majority of directions taken will prove to be the wrong ones, and those who take those wrong directions subject to the possibly catastrophic consequences. Just like evolution in action, in which the majority of mutations will prove to be detrimental to survival, and "selection" works because there's naturally high mortality.

We like to think that if we all knew the right path into the future, that we can travel that path together, but I think JMG is right: inconvenient and messy reality, not to mention society's tendancy to split and split again into factions going different ways, will dictate that a subset of this civilization's numbers will pass through the coming bottleneck / filter and begin again on the other side.

And there aren't obvious criteria for deciding which subset is best prepared for passing through and thriving in that fossil-fuel-scarce future. We can guess at a few that are unlikely (e.g. the Hummer dealer in Scottsdale AZ with a triple-bypass and adult-onset diabetes). But it's likely that serendipity and luck will play as much a role as zealous post-carbon planning and preparation.

- Dick Lawrence

12/11/08, 5:17 AM

dragonfly said...
So I am guessing that your answer is "yes, this convergence of crises may well force adaptations of the human species".

It's just that many people seem to think we'll all suddenly have telepathy or something on 2012, instead of less attractive genetic permutations that will gain ascendancy as the earth changes over millennia.

I love Frank Lloyd Wright too. Lived in Oak Park for a while.

12/11/08, 6:12 AM

RDatta said...
Thank you. That was very thoughtful, indeed.

It is all too easy to consider one's own ideas as the only acceptable ones and to resist any alternates. Hopefully this post may serve to correct the error amongst its readers.

12/11/08, 7:32 AM

Seaweed Shark said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

12/11/08, 9:58 AM

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...
JMG, I too am a great fan of Frank Lloyd Wright's architecture, but not of Thelonious Monk. Both are great examples to you, in my opinion.

I agree that we cannot know the date nor form of the future. Worse yet, every place and context will be different, just like no single alternative energy source will solve the problems. The post-oil future is a crap shoot where no one knows now, nor may know then, exactly what the rules are.

I too wonder how planned communities or transition towns will fit into things. I don't want to discourage these projects, nor do I hope they sink huge resources into them either. For that matter, I'm not sure what now is worth sinking huge $financial resources into other than removal of debt and trying to insure a low-energy-to-produce food supply.

Kevin Anderson

12/11/08, 10:58 AM

Tully Reill said...
JMG wrote;
"As we enter a future of new limits and unpredictable opportunities, this is arguably the kind of organic process we need most."

This makes me think of a recent e-mail discussion I had with some friends on "improvisation".

We can think we know what the future might hold, but in the end, it will be one's ability to adapt to the situations that arise that will count

12/11/08, 12:03 PM

Roy Smith said...
Another critique of consensus as a useful means for decision making in our future ahead comes from Starhawk in her book Dreaming the Dark. In it, she discusses the process of consensus decision making at length, with a very useful guide on how to do the process and how to avoid common pitfalls. One statement she makes, however, struck me, as it relates to the peak oil context. I don't have the book at hand, so I can't quote exactly, but the statement said, in effect "consenus is not a method that can work in choosing amongst the lesser of two evils". If I recall correctly, it was flatly stated, with no qualifiers.

What struck me about that is that in a society where resource availability is diminishing, deciding who gets to bear the pain or inconvenience of shortages is simply a variant of a lesser of two evils decision, and therefore may be a political problem that simply is not amenable to solution by consensus.

12/11/08, 1:49 PM

Mrs. Jarvie said...
Hmmm, so I should have more patience with those who purchase brand new eco-products instead of creatively re-using things they've already bought? I should embrace a diversity of attempted solutions, even those I find inferior? Hmmm...

12/11/08, 4:30 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Excellent essay that expresses many of my own feelings about the "world saving" and "planning a better tomorrow" schools of thought.

While we are playing with and examining words...

Biological evolution, of course, doesn't really work on consensus or dissensus -- more like asensus (maybe anasensus? Not so expert on combining latin roots). There's not really any thought involved at all, if we chose to set aside religion and just look at it from biology.

Also interesting to look at the meanings of some of these popular ecological and biological terms, as used by actual ecologists and biologists:

Natural: a weasel word with no real useful meaning, unless you are stressing its opposition to supernatural, such as in a discussion of science and mysticism. Nothing that science studies or can study is viewed as unnatural. More narrowly, there is the traditional split between the "natural" and "social" sciences, which is really a false dichotomy that impedes understanding more than it enhances it

Organic: originally, related to life; specifically, though, refers to chemical compounds where carbon is bonded to itself. DDT is organic, water is not. In ecology, "organic matter" is just a class of chemical compounds, it has nothing to do with good, bad, pure, contaminated, etc. A non-organic chicken would be quite inedible, indeed quite non-alive, in as much it would be made only of things like silica, calcium carbonate, and various salts. Any living chicken, regardless of what it has been fed, is (after you take out the 80% water) primarily organic.

Evolution: Change over time. That's it. Nothing about progress, advancement, goal, or direction. Everything evolves. The crumbling of a mountain over the eons is evolution; so is the melting of a snowflake. Biological evolution by natural selection ("Darwinian Evolution") is only one very specific case.

Ecology: the study of living things interacting with each other and their "environment." No political connotations.

Ecosystem: in it's broadest sense, any collection of interacting things that includes at least one thing that is alive. Nothing about "natural" in here; ecosystems include people. In actual practice, generally the idea is some collection of living things and the meteoro-geo-hydrological-chemical-energetic processes that they interact with.

Environment: In an ecosystem (see above), when you single out one thing from it, the rest of the ecosystem is that thing's environment. I am part of JMG's environment, and he is part of mine.

Interesting thing to note: NONE of these terms contain any notion of human versus nature, good versus bad, pure versus impure, healthy versus unhealthy, or progress towards anything or away from anything. Indeed, they are remarkably inclusive and non-judgmental, especially when compared to the way they are used in popular and political discourse. And they are for the most part specific and peculiar to any given defined circumstance. "The Ecology," "The Environment," "Evolution," etc. have no a priori universal meaning in the life sciences. They all depend on your perspective and your reasons for examining a thing. Just as in physics, everything is relative. The only similar term that really does have a specific, singular meaning is "The Ecosphere," which of course is that thin film on the surface of the earth, usually only a few hundred meters thick on land, and a few kilometers in the oceans, where the geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, solar radiation, and geothermal energy all intersect. So far, we only know of one of these.

12/11/08, 10:23 PM

in_the_light said...
thanks, JMG. This has been n eye opening read.


12/11/08, 10:45 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Lance, Alexander's another good resource; thanks for the reminder.

Wylde, the fact that Catholicism has survived so long suggests that single factor analyses may be inadequate! But monoculture on almost any scale tends to be self-defeating.

Anagnosto, if Wright had grown up in a country where there were 800 year old farms, he'd probably have given more attention to process!

Dick, of course a lot of the diverse attempts made under a dissensus system will fail -- but there's a better chance that some will get through, than if everything is gambled on one option. I'll have to do a post one of these days on the applicability of game theory to the survival of culture.

Dragonfly, one of the things that makes humans so resilient is cultural evolution -- we don't need to wait for the slow pace of genetic change. Yes, we'll have to adapt, and many of the most basic elements of contemporary cultures are headed for the trash heap.

Datta, and of course the same thing is true of my concepts! Dissensus isn't the only way, just one of the options...

Shark, thank you. I figure the great cultural task of the next thousand years or so is that of coming to terms with evolution and ecology.

Kevin, I think some of the grand attempts are worth pursuing, as long as nobody gets caught up in the notion that they're the only option there is.

Tully, funny about that -- I was thinking of a similar conversation.

Roy, it's a good point. More generally, consensus falls apart when there's not enough to go around.

Mrs. Jarvie, no, you should make your own choices as you see fit -- just recognize that others will do the same, and a great many of them will disagree with you!

Bill, "natural" has a perfectly good antonym: "artificial." As e.e. cummings says, "A world of made is not a world of born" -- or, more technically, phenomena that evolve tend to be significantly different from those created as a result of rational planning. That there are gray zones doesn't make the difference irrelevant, any more than the existence of near-death states means there's no difference between being alive and being dead.

Matthew, you're welcome!

12/11/08, 11:34 PM

hapibeli said...
Well said. Adaptation through dissensus ia also the modus of many legislatures the world over. Their's is often an endeavor that helps the few over the many. May the dissensi to come be of better service to our world.LOL!

12/12/08, 7:34 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
JMG --

Natural/artificial, yes of course, but as I stated at the outset I was talking about the terms as used within the life sciences in the present day. "Artificial" is used in some cases such as reefs and wetlands, but still the preferred formal term is usually something like "created" or "synthetic" or "man-made." After all, an "artificial" reef or marsh is still a reef or a marsh, with many unique properties just as is true for any other reef or marsh. The crustaceans care not who created it, they care about whether it is a good place for them to live. With the move over the last decades of the 20th century to include humans in the ecosystem when you study it or talk about it, the concept of putting man-made (i.e. artificial) in opposition to natural is viewed as dangerous, outdated, and misleading (now if you are talking about artificial hips and heart valves, that is an entirely different context). Human-created things are generally called "anthropogenic" or its exact synonyms "man-made," "human-made," "human caused," etc., not "artificial." Sure, etymologically that is what "artificial" means too, but it has acquired many other layers of meaning.

Now in the philosophical and spiritual context, of course I agree there is a fundamental difference between things that are the product of the human mind and things that are not. I think of it as whether you are interacting with a human intelligence versus a non-human intelligence. When you climb a flight of stairs in a mall you are interacting with a world that is the creation of human minds; when you scrabble up a talus slope at 11,000' in the mountains you are interacting with a world that is the creation of thousands and thousands of non-human "minds" (since I'm an animist, I'd give the glaciers and the tectonic plates the same credit as the human engineer as "creator."). It's a notion of whether it expands your awareness into things that are very different from you, or contracts your awareness into things that are very much like you.

As for the evolution of human things verus the evolution of biological species, of course there's the fundamental difference in mechanism, i.e. genetic inheritance. But as you point out, many of the processes, patterns, and forces are at least parallel, and neither actually proceeds (in the long-term) towards some goal, ideal, perfection, or higher state of being.

Funny, isn't it, since you and I agree on nearly everything, how we can get into pointed discussions about particular places where we do find some daylight between us!

12/12/08, 9:07 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
am amusing p.s...

While I'm playing with words, I should point out that it is indeed natural for humans to make artificial things!

12/12/08, 9:19 AM

Roy Smith said...

Nobody who is really familiar with the history of and the amount of variation in the Roman Catholic church can credibly argue that it is either a monoculture or that it is monolithic in nature. The papacy has tried, at various points in its history, to enforce various orthodoxies, but for the most part, Catholics have been more likely to act and believe in ways appropriate to what works in the local culture and circumstances, rather than in accordance with what the Vatican might demand. Exhibit A in this case is the attitude of the majority of American Catholics towards birth control: they are more likely than not to use it and limit their family size - this directly in contradiction to the Vatican's pronouncements on the subject.

I would argue that the most successful religions survive for so long precisely because they are not monocultures: Buddhism, Islam, and both the Roman Catholic and Orthodox varieties of Christianity have an astonishing amount of local, cultural, and temporal variation and adaptation, but all the variations and adaptations still contain elements that make them identifiably part of their respective traditions.

12/12/08, 10:52 AM

Dwig said...
JMG, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I like your form-substance-process model.

"...there is another dimension as well: how the new system is to deal with competition from other social systems." There's another possibility -- peaceful interaction to mutual benefit. This, of course, is something humans need to learn how to do; as with most social innovations, it has been tried on varying scales with varying success.

"...dissensus is the opposite of consensus...". Or maybe a complementary dual? We're not talking about eternal absolutes here, but organic processes -- there's a wide variety of ways for such processes to relate to and interact with each other over time. (And likely a range of identifiable "-sensus" concepts between con- and dis-.)

"Evolution is dissensus in action..."; and consensus as well, as symbiosis and commensalism show, and even more dramatically, the theory that cellular structures such as mitochondria evolved from a symbiotic relationship among early prokaryotes and eukaryotes (Lynn Margulis' endosymbiosis).

Speaking of process, I'd like to hear your reaction to an idea that I've been playing with for some time, about the interplay between "normal" and "revolutionary" processes (I'm adapting Thomas Kuhn's terminology here). Take a look at the last section of this essay for a discussion of two authors' framing of this theme, and my synthesis. (Caveat -- this is several years old, and I probably don't agree with everything I wrote there. 8^)

12/12/08, 12:41 PM

wylde otse said...
Bill Pulliam, It was with with polite deference I adjuncted to the presently used sense of the word; organic.
(I could not define any of the words we have on the table as difinitively or courageously as you did: natural; organic; evolution; environment; ecology; ecosystem.)
I'll touch on your definition of 'organic': True, 'organic chemistry' referes to the branch dealing with carbon molecules... but c'mon...we must defer to millions now who agree that an 'organic chicken' is one raised more-or-less naturally, not spiced with chemical additives. (whether hormones or artificially chemically 'enhanced' foods)
An organic chicken is one running joyously, freely, after bugs.

One we seem to agree on: 'environment' is a word I encountered in the early 1960's studying paleontology (first time I noticed it in the public media was at a public demonstration in Vancouver, Canada in 1969 - after which time it became ubiquitous.)
When I lived in Quebec, "les environs", was long used; losely meant " surrounding area".

My point: there are as many correct definitions of a word as there are entities contmplating or considering such.
Without the full subjective contextual perspective of each, we can only approach one another politely, tentatively...and sometimes wonder if we are from the same planet.

(ps. JMG's reply to your definition (as a "weasel word")of "natural", is gotta admit!)

12/12/08, 3:01 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Habibeli, any decision making system can benefit the few at the expense of the many, or vice versa. Legislatures have outcompeted other systems of decision making because, though they make more venal decisions than the competition, they seem to make fewer catastrophically bad ones.

Bill, it's exactly because we agree on most things that we can focus on the points of disagreement; when there's no common ground, that sort of analysis becomes impossible.

Roy, nicely put.

Dwig, I'll check the essay out. Of course commensalism and symbiosis are also possibilities, but I wanted to point to the specific issue of competitive relationships among human societies; most of the idealistic notions of the future in circulation these days seem to lack all awareness that these are an issue -- to say nothing of predation and parasitism...

Wylde, I've always liked the German equivalent of "environment": Umwelt, literally the "around-world," the world formed by that which surrounds any given living thing. There's a long essay on figure-ground relationships implied in that one word.

12/12/08, 3:15 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Wylde --

Of course the meanings of words depend on their context and social situations, and I made the context I was talking about clear at the start: "the meanings of some of these popular ecological and biological terms, as used by actual ecologists and biologists." I was in fact mostly pointing out the interesting contrasts between the use of these words in scientific contexts versus political/sociological/etc. contexts. I wasn't at all trying to espouse the "true" definitions of anything. Again, I thought I made this clear.

12/12/08, 4:37 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Wylde p.s. --

Actually on further pondering, I think the use of "organic" in agriculture actually does come from the carbon-based organic chemistry concept. I may be wrong, but I believe the original distinction was between farming that used organic fertilizers -- carbon-based materials like manure and compost, where nutrients are released by decomposition of organic compounds -- versus inorganic or "chemical" fertilizers such as phosphate, ammonium nitrate, etc. The word then became generalized to mean farming that does not use refined chemicals of just about any sort for any purpose. It's a study of the evolution of the term organic... and I may not have the linguistic history quite right.

12/12/08, 5:12 PM

wylde otse said...
Nicely put.
I am not critiquing or judging the over-all worth of the church (the ones mentioned); I leave that to their respective Gods - and human historians.

One fly in the holy ointment though...
Ever since I've been exposed to the 'meme theory' (a mid-1970's idea that words and ideas have a 'mind' and 'life' of their own), I' ve come to distrust any of the " holy books " simply because of the anachronistic paradigms which brood there, like deep roots of not-quite-gotten-rid-of weeds.

12/12/08, 6:19 PM

Lance Michael Foster said...
For those with an interest, and with an Internet capacity for streaming video, there is a nice PBS video on archaeology's take on the collapse of societies, especially in connection to agriculture and overpopulation. One "fly in the ointment" for the increasing push to make us "a nation of farmers" is that that's all well and good, but ultimately, soils can only take so much use without fallow periods, including backyard gardens, and petro-based fertilizers is not the answer. In addition, there is a problem of overuse and irrigation involving salinization of soils. Finally, the evidence is that while the elite groups at the top may experience a rapid collapse of a couple of years to a generation, the common folk retrench somewhat and survive in an attenuated manner of slow decline for a few hundred years until the soils can't take anymore, and then comes the last gasp. Of course that was at a totally different scale of impact than we face today, when there isn't any place to move where there aren't already people also in trouble. See the streaming video, Episode #8 "Collapse," in the "Out of the Past Series", at:

12/13/08, 7:40 AM

Thomas said...
One of the problems with Wright and with a number of other, more recent, designers that are trying to work in an organic paradigm is that they tend to get it bass-ackwards.

In biological evolution, function trumps form. It is much more important that a design be useful and efficient than aesthetically pleasing.

Such designers and architects want buildings and products that look as if they were inspired by living systems but that often lack the very underlying features that make living systems so attractive in the first place.

12/13/08, 8:13 AM

wylde otse said...
For what it's worth; I elevate your last word 'comment' (on organic - inorganic) to 'insight'.

12/13/08, 11:38 AM

Bill Pulliam said...

"In biological evolution, function trumps form. It is much more important that a design be useful and efficient than aesthetically pleasing. "

Not true, actually. What is termed "sexual selection," evolution driven by mate choices rather than survival of offspring, is a major force. It often drives biological evolution to create dramatic display traits, such as bright colors or ornate appendages. These ornaments, for which "aesthetic" seems a very apt description, are often not functional for anything but attracting and keeping mates. So even in biological evolution, the two forces of aesthetics and function work in concert and are balanced against each other in a web of tradeoffs. It doesn't matter how strong, smart, or efficient your offspring are if no one will want to have sex with them!

12/14/08, 5:17 AM

Alberto Castro said...
There's nothing intrinsecally organic in Wright's architecture, nor in any modernist architecture whatsoever. They all depend on industrial materials based around Portland cement and steel, made with fossil fuels. "Organic" architecture is just one more gimmick that helped revive industrial construction's ideology during one of it's ciclycal crises, a sort of twist against the worst mechanicism of industrial construction,say, à la Mies Van der Rohe. So please do not associate the concept with anything legitimally organic like agriculture or similar. Wright was just another high priest of the building industry, and IMHO his best building doesn´t measure against a poor peasant's house made withe natural materials. Of course it has the "spectacular" side, but doesn't every industrial product have it? Industrial materials have so much energy, literally, embodied in them through their chemical manufacturing processes that you can shape them in whatever form, spectacular, and/or just plain silly, that you may want to. See the "work" of Lybeskind or Zaha Hadid. Any idiot can shape concrete or steel or exotic metals or resins in extravagant forms. And that is ALWAYS at the expense of long term duration - embodied energy through complex chemistry is quickly reversible. No modernist building is going to last. With the declining of industrial societies, we are back to lime, bricks, wood and tiles, made in small artisanal ovens without fossil fuels. Cement is nowadays the cause of circa 10% of CO2 emissions.

12/14/08, 4:32 PM

Jan Steinman said...
JMG, I'm sure you've done your homework, but I'm not sure you really understand consensus.

I believe consensus is absolutely necessary at certain scales, and yet helpful at any scale.

Can you imagine electing a US national leader by consensus? I sure can't! And yet, the Iroquois Confederacy managed to govern an area the size of New York by a form of consensus.

When the first eukaryotes fused to form a single cell with nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA, they were practising consensus at a molecular level. When nature produces butterflies, bats, and birds, it is practising consensus at a cross-systemic, functional level. Evolution is a consensus process!

Few people who are not successfully practising consensus really understand it. In fact, I'd go so far as to say such a case is impossible. You can read Butler for a month and still not understand it as well as if you'd spent that month practising it. Practice makes perfect!

In particular, many people see consensus as an event, like voting, whereas it's really a process that envelopes "dissensus" by embracing and testing multiple ideas in order to combine the best features of those ideas.

Consensus begins with a problem statement, and floats "trial balloons" about that problem to see how they're received, similar to natural selection. The proposed action becomes refined over a period of time -- perhaps months, perhaps seconds -- until it is agreeable by all. An essential part of consensus is "swirling conversations" during which the result becomes more than the sum of the parts. It is, in effect, a design process, rather than a decision process.

We refer to our consensus process as an "agreement making" process, rather than a "decision making" process. A "decision" is a selection from among choices, rather than a synthesis combining those choices.

Is it necessary to have many different ideas, which seems to be what you're claiming is the strength of "dissensus?" Of course it is! And yet, throwing those ideas together in a crucible that forges together the strengths of them all is hardly the opposite of "dissensus" -- it's a necessary part, the part that happens outside and above "dissensus" as you've described it, the part that Brian Eno coined "scenius," or communal genius.

It may seem that I'm quibbling over semantics. But I worry that because a lot of folks respect and admire you, they may take this article to justify any doubts or misunderstandings they may have about communalism or consensus -- both of which I believe will be essential to the future of humanity.

Done properly, consensus embraces diversity at its core, thus reaping the benefits of competition in a civilized manner. Just because predation and parasitism exist in nature, doesn't mean we have to use our big brains that way!

12/15/08, 1:04 AM

Dwig said...
"...but I wanted to point to the specific issue of competitive relationships among human societies..." Fair enough, and well done.

I was taking up a different issue about evolution: the weakness of the popular "nature red in tooth and claw" image. By the way, in addition to the role of cooperation, this image misses another point, about the, ahem, nature of competition: prey-predator relationships aren't examples of evolutionary competition; it's species occupying the same ecological niche that compete. For example, herds of herbivores of different species peacefully grazing in a grassland may well be in a dire struggle with each other for species survival. In this light, "evolutionary" competition in human societies would be between/among those of a similar kind in a particular region, exploiting a similar set of resources.

12/15/08, 10:52 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Wylde, "anachronistic" is always a judgment call. I'm not a great fan of the paradigms presented in some holy books, but their age is no measure of their validity.

Lance, that's what makes today's organic agriculture so revolutionary. Done right, it maintains soil nutrients indefinitely.

Thomas, I think you're misjudging Wright. My take is that he had the right idea, just didn't take it beyond the spatial sphere.

Bill, nicely noted.

Alberto, from my perspective you're making the same mistake Wright did -- mistaking one dimension of the natural/artificial distinction (in your case, materials) for the whole thing.

Jan, I certainly don't mean to dismiss the value of consensus as one option for organization, now and in the future. My point, rather, is that it's not the only option, and there are situations in which it's not the best choice. (It can also fail just as disastrously as other systems; I've seen groups that used consensus blow themselves apart; I've also seen it misused by a skilled minority to manipulate a group into accepting a covert agenda.) No tool is suited to every task, and finding agreement is not always productive, or possible; thus the value of dissensus as another tool in the kit.

12/16/08, 8:40 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...
One more example of how utopian planning never works out as it was intended to, that once created, things take on their own direction:

"The mall as we know it today -- an enclosed concrete box of shops, connected by common space -- is only 52 years old, created by Gruen, an Austrian Socialist Jew who thought he was inventing a utopian, community-oriented commercial center. The mall was meant to pull people together from disparate regional corners; instead, with the help of the trusty automobile, it drained those corners, dismembering many a downtown."

12/16/08, 12:57 PM

M. Craft said...
Speaking as an unofficial student of the more philosphical aspect of the idea of chaos and complexity theory, I find that the notion of dissensus provides a rather nice label to append to a quote from the Principia Discordia, a clever book that is, in equal parts, religion, philosophy, and utter joke; the quote is that "We Discordians must stick apart!"

It is an emphasis of the dissensus concept; that in the consensus mentality, there is a certain herd-like component that societies themselves tend to develop, as dissident opinions are weeded out as potentially dangerous, while in the dissensus mentality, there is an empty space in which numerous ideas can proliferate, allowing an exponential growth of creativity. Many of the memes thus born will, like their genetic counterparts, prove to be innate failures and die off in their due course.

Others will prove either specialized for the present environment, and proliferate vigorously until the situation changes, or they will prove magnificently adaptable to a wide range of situations and thus flourish moderately well even as the more specialized memes die off. The net result is, as you say, the vastly greater probability of someone finding either the precise solution needed when the future's shift occurs (specialization), or perhaps a more general solution that can work within multiple scenarios (adaptability).

A specialized response, say, if you were part of a settlement in a fairly fertile valley as refugees begin to arrive might be to direct them to the unoccupied portions closer to the valley entrances, until the valley is full and then newest arrivals will be hardest-pressed. This situation is likely to experience a memetic die-off as soon as the situation changes - in this case, the most likely being the valley filling to capacity, after which the method for dealing with refugees must change.

A more adaptable and thus longer-lived meme would, as an example, be a mutation of the Golden Rule; in that by taking care of one's neighbors, friends, and family, they will in turn feel willing to help you. This kind of simple and highly adaptable meme - it can fit into nearly any social scenario outside the profit-driven industrial structure without much difficulty - promotes social orders that can cohesively provide for and protect each other without necessarily needing to follow any dogma beyond mutual good will. Beyond a certain point, where monolithic structures come into being, it becomes a recessive meme, unable to function in such aggregate social entities in general, and waits until a breakdown allows it to resurface and propagate again.

Neither of these memes would likely surface, mutated or pure, in a consensus environment based upon the current social order; at best, if they did, they would most likely be poisoned from the outset by those who, upon absorbing them, subvert their memetic identity for their own usage, much like a virus subverts genetic code. The valley-dwellers would give untenable land to the refugees; the good will is replaced by a black market of favors which are grudgingly owed and hoarded for their potential worth.

Your commentary is thought-provoking as always, sir. I thank you.

12/17/08, 7:54 AM

Ainslie Podulke van der Stam said...
I realize it's been awhile since this thread occurred but I wanted to share a journal entry I made after beginning to read the thread of comments here. Interestingly enough, I am just now catching that this theme was already touched on in later posts. I'll read them.

In Bill P.'s comment after JMG's post on Dissensus and Organic Process he mentions terms like Ecology, Environment, Organic, etc. as they relate to pure scientific language-ology (or something like that)- and I was struck by a memory. Pure Yin energy was the time, and I was resisting proper placements of words in organizational (canonical) systems like that. I remember how RIGHT I was, because as it happens at that time I was striking for my Kundalini-esque, entirely intuitively found tribal energy, and it needed to be born, so I *needed* all the words in the world to be floating, so that I could find myself in them and I HAD TO APPLY MY OWN DEFINITIONS. This is a cultural-national process and it is interesting that I am listening to Thelonius Monk at this time. I wasn't aware, and most certainly not able to admit, that this was so. The circle of culture from form to formlessness is an essential concept to understand. The state of exile and the struggle towards form is not even aware of what it's doing, formlessness is the only thing it knows. All it knows is it is reaching for something it has to do, and it has murderous foes as obstacles. Then you have the state of integrated form, as opposed to rigid form, though rigid form may be a tool to link to integrated form.
I now see the need to have canons, but the canon with no wild witches fertilizing, is for the newly birthing life as a giant with treachourously heavy feet.

1/27/11, 6:35 AM