The Larger Paradigm

We saw that in the smaller paradigm about burning and prairie ecosystems, process produces pattern in a tightly-linked, one-way, linear, cause-and-effect way. The mechanistic relationship between pattern and process means any value assessed to one applies to the other as well. And the entire mechanism is universally applicable, meaning that if fire produces healthy prairie in Nebraska it does it in Kansas too, and that if grassland burning is good in North Dakota it’s also good in Texas. The universal mechanism can be generalized diagrammatically like this:

What you are looking at now is not just the paradigm that informs the burning of prairies, but the core of the super-paradigm that informs so much of Western culture, that we have been trying to reveal. This paradigm states that Process produces pattern in a tightly-linked, one-way, linear, cause-and-effect mechanism that is universally applicable. This statement is Western culture’s master paradigm of the natural world.

Does it sound familiar? It should. We’ve pointed to it over and over again throughout this learning exercise, saying that Western culture’s paradigm of nature is linear, mechanistic, and cause-and-effect. This is the paradigm that manifests itself as Western science. Do you see that? Research, in Western science, is about discerning and describing pattern, inferring process from that pattern, correctly predicting pattern from process, and establishing hierarchies (e.g., “more advanced”) that assign relative values (e.g., “better”) to those patterns, then applying the whole sequence universally. But, even though you are probably not a scientist yourself, this paradigm is inside you, too. In fact, you’ve just seen that it’s so deeply-rooted in you that it’s kept you from seeing any meaningful way you can resolve the problem of smoke-related health problems created by the burning that maintains ecosystem health in the Flint Hills. It’s written just as deeply into most people in Western culture. That’s why I say this paradigm “manifests” in science. Science didn’t create it. It’s far, far older than that.

And the really tricky bit on this is that the picture looks exactly like I have drawn it: there is a one-to-one correlation between pattern and process. Each specific pattern (healthy prairie ecosystem) is produced by one process (burning — not cattle grazing, burrowing rodents, or freezing). Each process (burning grasslands) produces one pattern (healthy prairie ecosystem —  not healthy rainforest ecosystem or a prairie with invading cedars or a prairie that is choked by sumac). This one-to-one correlation has been absolutely essential for science to function. You cannot infer process from pattern otherwise. You also can’t use a successful prediction of pattern from process (verified hypothesis) to make generalizable conclusions if there’s not a universal one-to-one relationship between pattern and process.

The reason you had trouble with the smoke story is that if burning is “bad” because of the smoke, then universality means it must be bad everywhere. If you try to restrict problematic burning to the Flint Hills, you violate universality. And if you don’t restrict it, then “bad” crosses over to apply to “healthy prairie ecosystems” as well as to “burning prairies” in prairies all over the world. As the changed valuation spreads universally, it overturns several decades of effort to establish a positive correlation between fire and healthy ecosystems of several different kinds.

The rancher story threw everything into furor inside you because it suggested, even more strongly, that there’s something different in the Flint Hills burning that changes the diagram and violates the super-paradigm. This overturning accords with the sense the smoke story gave you, so it ramped up your discomfort. But Western Culture’s master paradigm cannot and does not permit any but a one-to-one correlation between pattern and process. So the fact that the tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills is so lush that it feeds all these cattle locks us into the inescapable conclusion that the ranchers’ burns are as “good” and as ecologically sound as a prairie burn started by lightning on Nature Conservancy land in South Dakota. There is literally no room in this paradigm for two different processes that produce the same pattern. The core predictive method of the standard scientific method, which is based in a linear, cause-and-effect mechanistic view of the natural world, falls apart if that’s the case. More to the point, Western culture’s mechanistic, linear, cause-and-effect perception of the natural world — which is how this paradigm is lodged within you — also falls apart in that case.

And you felt this. You felt it so strongly that you saw no way out — because there isn’t any way out within Western worldview. So you felt upset. Smoke or no smoke is a minor issue. Overturning the paradigm that’s so foundational to Western culture isn’t minor at all. Hitting the rancher example threw you into even deeper distress because now it seemed even more impossible to hold onto the one-to-one relationship between process and pattern. The only way to resolve the Flint Hills issue is to say there are two very different processes that produce healthy prairie grasslands, and that one is good but the other bad. This would have the happy side-effect of resolving the smoke issue, but it blasts Western culture’s rock-bottom paradigm to smithereens.

Well, the fact is that there is actually a real difference in these different kinds of prairie burns. There’s also a real difference between powerline clearings and natural clearings. Something within you knows this, intuitively. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t feel the discomfort of being caught between a paradigm and information that threatens to overturn it.

But you actually know how to get out of this trap. Do you remember the alternative that science itself offers, as a different paradigm of the natural world? On the adaptation page, I pointed out to you that evolutionary theorists perceived problems with the linear, mechanistic paradigm and also the tight connection of pattern and process as the paradigm’s backbone. This is the tight connection that evolutionary scientists broke apart nearly 50 years ago, generating a paradigm shift that’s moved through the field of ecology even though it’s unlikely you were aware of this before working through these materials. (You’d have to have an advanced degree in ecology or evolution to have encountered the new paradigm in coursework.) So, thinking through this alternative paradigm, do you know how to diagram its expression in prairies, as an alternative to “burning grassland —> healthy prairie ecosystem”?

You can see my own rough attempt below, though it’s limited by being two-dimensional and by the fact that I can put in only a limited number of objects and arrows without making the diagram impossible to read. As it is, you will need to look fairly closely at the image to see what’s there. But here’s a very rough approximation of what that diagram might look like:

I drew all the arrows with arrowheads on both ends, specifically to signify reciprocal relationship. But you know from material in the Weaving section that each of these two-headed arrows should really be two parallel arrows going opposite directions, because one represents receiving action and the other represents the reciprocal giving action. I drew all the arrows of relationship to and from big bluestem, since that’s the grass species most commonly associated with tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills. Please notice there are many, many things in relationship with one another in a natural ecosystem, however, giving and receiving to and from each other in many different ways.

Of course, everything shown connects with and relates to everything else in reciprocity, so the diagram should really be much richer. So I added relational arrows for the winds to the diagram below, just to give you an idea of what this diagram would look like if all the relations between things were represented. These kinds of arrows should be between every single thing on this diagram, running to and from every other thing on the diagram (plus all the things I could not fit into the diagram that are parts of a healthy plains ecosystem).

Western science analyzes one single interactional arrow pair of pattern and process at a time.  That’s the only way it can do things, since anything else is simply too complicated to study. Then this single interactional pair becomes a small, specific ecological paradigm such as “burning prairie grasses produces a healthy prairie ecosystem”. Looking at this diagram, and at all the things fire and big bluestem interact with, you get an idea of how ridiculous it is to reduce the entire prairie to a single paired interaction. Yes, fire is an important part of big bluestem in the prairie ecosystem. So is Buffalo. So is pocket gopher, grasshopper, the Kiowa people, winds, sunflowers, lightning, ground-freezing temperatures, corn, and skinks. In fact, there are indications even in the papers you read that one reason so much emphasis is being put on fire is that the ecosystem has been so impoverished that it’s struggling to survive, despite the burning.

To support this, I’ll point to a passage of Brian Obermeyer’s observation you might have overlooked when I reproduced it before, by putting it in bold font: “Some folks are burning more frequently than they would have otherwise needed to because woody plants have gotten such a strong hold in places.” When you read that, you should ask yourself what else has changed in this ecosystem. And one answer should address which grazers are present and how they graze — buffalo, elk, and antelope as compared to beef cattle. Buffalo, in particular, migrated through the prairies and only grazed a short time in any one location. Do the cattle eat the grass and move on? Think about the financial issues, the timing of burning so cattle can be on the pastures as long as possible, and you know they’re eating these grasses all the way down as far as the ranchers can permit without killing the roots. That’s a very different pattern of grazing from the way buffalo and other wild grazers interacted with the grasses. In fact, the cattle might not do it if they weren’t fenced in. But they can’t leave and they’re not given other food to eat, so they’re basically forced to eat down the grass.

It’s well known that overgrazing is one of the most important factors in destroying grasslands. Overgrazing permits woody plants to invade prairie ecosystems. If we drew the actual linear, cause-and-effect fire-produces-prairie diagram  that absolutely everyone assumes is “what’s going on in the Flint Hills,” it would look like the original linear economies diagram we redrew in the Weaving section. The cows are what links this local, linear economy to the larger circular economy that really exists. But in this area, the system is linear and extractive. The cows are shipped in from outside the area, and they eat the grass down so far over the spring and early summer that woody plants take hold in late summer and begin to grow in a way that will outcompete the grasses come the following spring. So in early spring, just before the cows arrive, the ranchers burn the prairie to get rid of the woody plants and let the grasses come back, which they do. Then the cattle eat them all down again. At the end of this local linear economies system, the cattle are shipped out of the ecosystem again. The ranchers get their income from the grazing lease fees, not from the beef itself.

So the Flint Hills burning that’s smoking people out of their homes isn’t one of natural prairie burning to keep grasslands healthy at all. It’s the result of a very limited and oversimiplified linear economy based on farming wild grass species through the use of fire to mitigate overgrazing damages, for the purpose of using the grass as cheap feed for beef cattle. The resources in the soil and the grass are being steadily removed, and fire can’t put it back. Fire can only get rid of the woody species that move into the ground space cleared by overgrazing. So the whole system is slowly going downhill — which is why the burning has to happen every single year now. Think about historical observations of prairie lands if you think all the grass burned every one to three years, historically. Historical records of prairie fires in any given area are as occasional, even fairly unusual and therefore highly notable, events.

The ranchers have every right to make a living, of course. They really do. The problem here is that there’s a critical issue no one sees — not the ranchers, not the ecologists, not the EPA, and not the area residents. It’s that the burning taking place in the Flint Hills is not natural, and the ecosystem there is not at all healthy and natural tallgrass prairie. The tallgrass prairie ecosystem is actually in the process of falling apart. But no one sees this because of  the way Western culture’s master paradigm influences their perception of reality. So everyone can feel there’s something wrong, but no one can put their finger on it. It’s not possible to do that as long as you stand inside the linear, mechanistic, cause-and-effect paradigm of the natural world. You’re stuck.

I want to add that there are other and additional, multiple relationships that maintain the tallgrass prairie grass species besides those of fire and native grazing animals. But the more impoverished and less resilient the prairie ecosystem gets, the more it teeters on the brink of being unable to remain above the emergent threshhold for tallgrass prairie. Remember that what makes the tallgrass prairie ecosystem an ecosystem is the pulsing, synchronous communicative relationships between all the connected elements of that ecosystem, relating to one another the way brain neurons do during the act of perception. And “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” (Falk 2017:206). Remember? You’ve looked at all this before. We’ve spent thousand and thousands of words exploring the utter failure of the linear, mechanistic, cause-and-effect model to explain the natural world . . .

. . . and yet it caught you anyway. And it caught you firmly enough that you couldn’t get away when faced with powerline corridors that utility companies claim are “just the same as” natural clearings. Even when you found out about the cattle being trucked in to eat the tallgrass prairie plants,  I doubt you thought to question everyone’s assumption that the tight link between the burning and the grasses is the issue that matters most. In a way, Western culture’s master paradigm creates a shell game* that focuses your attention on the wrong thing, in this case “burning is good for the prairie ecosystem.”

Paradigms have deep roots. Sit with what you’re seeing here, and let it really sink in. When I’ve said so many times that a linear, cause-and-effect view of the natural world is Western culture’s master paradigm and far more pervasive than you realize, I meant it a lot more than you understood. Are you starting to see it now?

This is why you can break through into a new paradigm while working through this exercise, but you’re going to have to really work to rid yourself of the habits of thought engendered by the old one. It pervades Western culture so perniciously that the more you look for it, and find it, the more amazed you will be. It’s why otherwise sensible and intelligent people want to turn complexity theory into a whole bunch of individual lines of mechanistic cause-and-effect they can analyze with super-computers. The paradigm is simply that deeply rooted.

But emergence is not a linear process. It’s simply not.

This actually leaves us with some unexpected and crucially important consequences you might not have noticed yet, that we’ll explore next.


*Some people think of a shell game as simply one of keeping your eye on three inverted cups being quickly moved around a table surface, only one of which has a pea beneath it, so you can point to the one hiding the pea when the moving stops. But in an actual shell game, the person running the game uses sleight-of-hand to remove the pea from the table before they start to move the cups around. So there’s really no pea on the table at all, which means it’s not possible to point to the cup hiding the pea because there’s no pea under any of them. Paying close attention to the moving cups to “keep your eye on” the one with the pea is meaningless because the pea is in the game operator’s pocket.