Unexpected Consequences

Every paradigm shift has a moment of reckoning. Think about the paleontologist in Jurassic Park. His moment of reckoning was depicted very clearly, as a physical collapse. We haven’t really discussed why learning that Tyrannosaurus rex was one of the species restored to life had such a big impact on him, but there’s a sense in the clip that it’s got something to do with joy — that this species is as special to paleontologists as it is to children. And T. rex is certainly a species that captures the imagination. But it does so precisely because of its formidably dangerous predatory aspect. We actually know at that moment, watching the movie, the same thing the paleontologist’s subconscious knows when it receives this information about T. rex: there’s big trouble ahead in the new paradigmatic landscape.

Every major paradigm shift has consequences. The moment of perceiving those consequences, of realizing that the paradigm shift impacts a great deal more than you realized, generates a moment of reckoning. The real impact of releasing the old paradigm hits home. This is when the paradigm really shifts — or doesn’t. Because this is the very same place an existing (“old”) paradigm digs in its heels, is when you realize what you’re just about to lose, and choose — consciously or not — to hang onto those apparent benefits. Doing this requires that you deny or discredit the information that challenged the existing paradigm to begin with, though. And sometimes that’s not possible. The movie paleontologist couldn’t say, “Restoring T. rex is going too far, so forget all this. I’m leaving you to it and forgetting I ever saw any of these dinosaurs. In fact, dinosaurs are extinct!” (‘except for birds,’ an actual dinosaur paleontologist would add).

But that was a unique situation because the new paradigm literally walked past and ate a tree. It’s pretty hard to deny such a thing. If you came to one of the training programs we used to offer and had a powerful experience of the Land, then you would be in a similar position of “new paradigm front and center.” But you’re in the alternative position of simply having the old paradigm fall apart in your hands without a fully realized new one to replace it yet. So what is the moment of reckoning in this sort of situation? Your subconscious has a pretty good idea. My guess is it’s pointing grimly to Jurassic Park and raising an eyebrow in silent emphasis of that film’s primary theme: nature is dangerous and only science and technology (such as helicopters and electrified fences) can protect us from it. This is the place where the old paradigm still has roots in you that we’ve got to pull up.

Please notice that this view of human-nature relationship generates internal conflict even in story — because it was science and technology, and the idea that humans can control nature, that got everyone into that dangerous situation in Jurassic Park to begin with. The two stories — “humans can control nature” and “when humans control nature it gets us in trouble” — exist in tandem, generating internal conflict so big that it plays out across cultural battle lines. You have lived with this internal conflict all your life, which is why it was so easy to shrug off the disquiet you felt when you read about powerline corridors and dangerous smoke from burning the Flint Hills. So here’s what I want you to notice about the way that conflict usually ends up being at least overtly resolved: a priority is put on controlling nature and protecting people from the consequences, with the caveat that “this may create problems but we’ve planned for those, and if other things come up we’ll deal with them later.”

Western culture’s linear, mechanistic,  cause-and-effect paradigm of the natural world is so powerful that even after you thought about the paradigm conceptually, knew it was there, and reviewed a number of situations in which it utterly fails, it still determined the way you saw powerline clearings and prairie burning that generated dangerous levels of smoke. And it did this despite alarms sounded by your subconscious mind when growing internal conflict generated emotional discomfort. Your own body warned you there was something you needed to pay attention to, but didn’t. You, and also the people interviewed in the US News report who seemed to feel similar discomfort, resolved that conflict by prioritizing the control of nature through burning for the “good” reason of having a healthy tallgrass prairie ecosystem. Only secondarily did anyone seriously consider protecting people from the consequences of the burn smoke, exploring the possibility of changing how and when the burns are conducted. But not conducting the burn at all wasn’t even on the table as an option because that would violate the universality of the tight pattern-and-process paradigm (a smaller expression of the larger master paradigm) that “burning prairie grasslands generates healthy prairie ecosystems.”

Now stop. Stop right there, and look back at that sentence you just read, about the deeper and not at all overt way the paradigmatic conflict was really (as opposed to merely apparently) resolved. When two conflicting paradigms came into conflict within you, the outcome was actually determined by a third paradigm that wasn’t about the benefits or dangers of controlling nature, either one. Yes, I am saying the overt prioritization of burning the prairies being “good” was an epistemic shell game. The rock that did not give, almost completely invisible and with roots deep as a mountain chain, was Western culture’s epistemic system. You could not, in the end and despite evidence pushing you that direction, violate the universality of tight cause-and-effect pattern-and-process that is the foundational paradigm of Western culture’s epistemic system. THAT’s where the priority wound up being put. That paradigm of epistemology is what forced you into the position of having to choose between “burning prairie is good” or “burning prairie is bad” (a false dichotomy, as we’ve seen), because the universality of the tight pattern-and-process paradigm is so foundational in Western culture that it could not be violated.

You’ve read that Western culture’s epistemic system is the single biggest barrier between people of that culture and the natural world. All but one of the different ways of knowing and learning about the natural world are discarded or discounted by Western culture, and the only way of knowing that’s considered valid is one in which humans construct knowledge through intellectual cognitive processes such as objective observation, logic, and deduction. These cognitive processes are very effective for analyzing the natural world if it operates in a linear, cause-and-effect system of tightly-coupled pattern and process that are universally applicable. If you can see powerline corridors through that lens of process (a clearing is created when trees vanish from a forest) and pattern (species diversity increases at the edge between the clearing and the forest), then the world becomes a very simple place in which humans can “objectively observe” and “figure out” how to “do the same things nature does” by using artificial processes to create real and healthy patterns of nature. This permits humans to safely manipulate nature’s mechanisms for the benefit of human safety, economic gain, or pleasure.

But if the natural world doesn’t work that way, is instead NOT mechanical, NOT linear, NOT cause-and-effect, then what? Look at my over-simplified diagram of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem on the previous page, and think about the real relationship fire has to every part of that system, plus all the other relationships that impact and nuance the way fire interacts with all these other things. The relationship fire has to healthy prairie is complex, at the very least. How do you go about “fixing” a dying tallgrass prairie ecosystem with so many interrelating moving players, only one of which is fire? People in Western culture who lose the dominant paradigm of cause-and-effect pattern and process lose their epistemic toolbox, and it’s happening at the very same time they’re starting to perceive the severity of harm that’s been done to the natural world.

This puts them in the position of a very young child who has found a crushed butterfly and has seen the parent mend a torn stuffed toy with thread and a broken figurine with glue. The child doesn’t know those tools can’t restore the emergent property of life, that they’re too simple to handle a situation that is beyond simple mechanism. The child therefore tries to spread out and smooth the dying butterfly’s crumpled wings, only to see the fragile tissues tear apart beneath their fingers. A similar naive compassion moves you, when  you are faced with a dying ecosystem such as the tallgrass prairie. You say to yourself, “We can fix it!” And you start to analyze individual process-pattern pairs to identify linear cause-and-effect mechanisms that give you that deeply satisfying sense of standing outside the natural world with a lever long enough to move it.

And there you are, as quickly as that, standing in the old paradigm again: separated from the natural world — standing outside of it, objectively observing it from a helicopter the horses [supposedly] don’t even notice, cutting the trees down or setting the fire and telling yourself it’s all the same thing, perfectly natural and exactly what nature herself does — even though you know, deep inside, it is NOT the same at all. And you do this because without that paradigmatic toolbox you feel helpless.

That sense of being helpless is worth sitting with. So move over a bit in your chair and invite it to sit down beside you and with you. And keep reading while you share space with that. It’s going to keep you company through the rest of part 3, and then we’ll figure out how to begin making peace with it in part 4. But the first step is coming to terms with the fact that you actually cannot control nature, which leaves you feeling helpless and vulnerable.

The ecologists and other scientists I’ve cited throughout this work are saying as clearly as they know how that the mechanistic ways of knowing modern science has used for centuries do not heal ecosystems that are suffering and dying at this time. We cannot fix the crumpled butterfly. This is something you must face. You feel helpless without these epistemic tools, yes, but the fact is they don’t work in natural ecosystems. These tools are effective only in very limited circumstances, primarily within human social systems rather than ecological ones. For instance, engineers can design buildings that won’t collapse in even fairly severe earthquakes. Immunologists can design vaccines that lessen the impact of individual viruses. These kinds of situations are so restricted that the relationship between structural design and earthquake resistance or vaccine design and viral resistance approximates the linear process and pattern model of cause and effect.

But the larger complex situation can still impact the outcome. As one example, a virus can mutate in a way that permits it to resist a vaccinated person’s immune system. We often see these kinds of situations as “failures” in which people who come down sick and become a host in which the virus can mutate cause a problem that would not otherwise exist. But consider that one of the biggest opportunities for the Covid virus to mutate right now — besides its absolutely innate tendency to do so — is provided by the twinned socio-political forces of vaccine resistance and, on the other end of the scale, “first-world” citizen demands to prioritize their health and safety over that of people in other nations. Both behaviors create large population pools in which infection and mutation can occur, and both seem to be driven largely by social pressures emerging from social media networks that are, in fact, complex. (They’re being studied by groups at places such as the Max Planck Institute.) In this case, what’s emerged from complex social media systems are twinned and opposite outcomes that manifest peoples’ fears (of their government or the virus, respectively). So even in this highly simplified situation, we can see the real process is not at all a linear one of cause-effect. Instead, the situation is merely simplified enough (one virus, one mammalian species — another oversimplification since now it’s in multiple mammalian species) that the outcome can be “close enough, often enough” for people to willingly accept the risk of occasional “failures.” Of course, these “failures” aren’t really failures but normal events that point to the lack of fit between the pattern-process model and the complex way the world really functions. This is why successful vaccination programs, and public health strategies in general, so often focus on psychological and social factors such as vaccine resistance and distrust of governmental and public health agencies.

It’s extremely important to point out that in both these examples (making buildings safer in earthquakes or people safer when exposed to a virus), the actions of scientists and engineers successfully modify humans and constructed human habitats, not the natural environment. That’s the other reason these very simplified situations have positive outcome possibilities. I’ll leave it to you to think through why focusing efforts on humans rather than the natural environment makes such a big difference. When you do that, be sure to remember how Othering people of “different” race, gender, ethnicity, or nationality has thrown a well-documented monkey wrench into those positive outcome possibilities, partcularly in the field of medicine.  Then, if you would, think about what this means when Western scientists and engineers turn their “fixing” epistemology on a natural world that’s been culturally “Othered” to the point where it’s seen as literally inanimate.

Ecosystems are complex systems that cannot be simplified in the real world. If they are simplified enough for linear models of cause and effect to predict what they’ll do, they’ve dropped below threshold or are about to do so, and have already ceased to function as a viable ecosystem. So Western culture’s epistemic toolkit, that seemed to be so powerful, does not and cannot fix sick and dying ecosystems. The butterfly is crushed and we cannot glue its wings back on. This is a grievous realization, yes, but there comes a point when further denial of the truth becomes horrifyingly destructive. We are at that point.

The complexity paradigm ecologists are using, that’s giving them better traction in the situation, is based in relationship as the baseline natural process that informs the universe. Yet even ecologists and complexity scientists come up empty-handed when trying to generate a new toolkit for human-nature relationship from this model. So they tend to fall back into the paradigmatically habitual linear, mechanistic model that sees emergence as something of an extrapolated version of many linear mechanistic things happening all at once that just look like a whole different process but really aren’t. In a sense, they’re saying the difference between linear mechanistic process and emergent process exists only, and quite literally, in the eye of the beholder human — that the difference between linear cause-and-effect and emergence isn’t ontologically real.

But look again at Varela’s simple and elegant study of human perception itself. If you want to extrapolate something, extrapolate that whole-system harmonic pulsation of neurons all over the brain to whole-system pulsation of the many relatives in my diagram of the tallgrass prairie. And couple this image with Falk’s definition of resilience (2017:206): “What we define and observe as resilience is an emergent property of complex adaptive systems, in this case including species evolutionary processes and ecosystem function, creating a reservoir of ‘ecological memory,’ the tendency for past states of an ecological community to influence contemporary or future ecological responses.”

When you lose Western culture’s linear, mechanistic, cause-and-effect paradigm of the natural world, you lose the epistemic system that permits you to think that humans can control the natural world. In point of fact, you realize, as Juha Uitto has observed so profoundly (2021), “The sweet complacency of the affluent West has been disrupted. Instead of history ending in an unstoppable march of globalization and economic growth, we are suddenly faced with natural and social calamities that threaten the sustainability of our common future” because Western culture’s global dream of “smooth sailing was always an illusion.”

In a truly complex world, there are no tools people of Western culture can use to “fix” dying ecosystems. For ecosystems to become simple enough for epistemic tools based in the linear, cause-and-effect paradigm that links pattern and process to work, they would have to become impoverished and depopulated by loss of biodiversity to such an extent that emergent phenomena disappear. By definition, this only happens if the ecosystem falls below threshold. And an ecosystem that does this is already dead and gone.

Let the old paradigm blow away, and let its clumsy tools and false hopes blow away with it. Your hands have to be empty to receive the powerful alternatives.

Please go now to the last page of our journey through West, which is about Healing.