Photograph courtesy Library of Congress. (Full credit at bottom of section to avoid spoilers.)
This ‘memo 0’ has three sections, one each on simplified categories applied to the human world and the natural world – how they obscure nuances and impede deeper understanding of underlying systems. The third section draws parallels between two networks that span those worlds.
Quick pop quiz, without cheating (or clicking the sources):
Ready to check all your answers? It’s the same: the United States of America. (The last one is Los Angeles.)
Now, the point is certainly not that “USA is not so great after all”, or that “things aren’t as bad in (insert a poor country) as you thought”. It is and they are. Most of the above indicators are much worse in some other country. And campaign slogans aside, the USA has long had several legitimate claims to being a ‘great’ country. A strong case is just the list of indispensable things that the US continues to share with non-Americans for free. The complete list is for future memos, but for now, if you have ever hailed a cab on an app, or tracked the delivery of a package, or recorded your run on a fitness wearable, you may thank the next American taxpayer you meet for the completely free GPS signal.
Seriously though, where would we be without GPS?! 😉
Top photo: Young Cigarmakers in Englehardt & Co., Tampa, Florida. January 1909
Photo by Lewis Hine, no known restrictions on image.
The point of those factoids above is just that the world is not neatly categorized into good places to live and bad ones. When explaining development, someone decided to identify some countries by the participle of the verb (‘developed’) and others by the gerund (‘developing’), separating the twain by a chasm forevermore. Applied as an adjective, ‘developed’ implies a process completed: no systemic social problem left to solve. In the actual fact, countries lie on a spectrum and within countries, their citizens live on spectrums.
Some rich countries have many of the same problems that most poor countries have. Some other countries have them to conspicuously lower degrees. It is clearly not money that solves many of those problems. Policy makers, analysts, consultants or pundits who assume poverty to be the root cause of the above problems might be blinding themselves from seeing creative, effective once-and-for-all solutions. Regular readers of this memo should be equipped to serve them better.
By the way, that cover photo above shows child labourers in the tobacco industry in turn-of-the-century USA. The previous turn of the century, i.e., 1909 to be precise. What do you imagine the state of child labour in the same industry in the same country is 100 years on? (That’s a poignant nod to the ‘pace of development’ concept which appears in a different context near the end of this sample memo.)
Bark of Eucalyptus deglupta, widely known as “Rainbow Eucalyptus,” on the island of Maui. Photo by Paxson Woelber CC-BY-SA 4.0. (Because that’s just how constantly surprising nature is. Tree bark is the dullest thing in a forest, right? Looking for a bark to match the specific colour scheme of this website? Nature’s got it!)
Of course, the larger point is also that the simpler picture had a purpose for a limited time. We learn a very simplified picture in school and then higher education does little to update it, to help unlearn and complicate some of the very basic assumptions as we grow up. Not to mention the facts that school textbooks get flat out wrong or deem kids too stupid to grasp. Just as we teach young children to categorise the human world into developed and developing countries, we ‘help demystify’ the natural world by slotting it into easy categories.
Between grade 5 and 7, school science classes around the world begin introducing food chains and food webs – a crucial concept in understanding the intricate relationships in nature. Many textbooks might even go the extra length to explain the delicate balance that food webs help sustain: you lose one of the species in the system and the whole thing can potentially come crumbling down. But most textbooks stop there, concealing the fuller shocking picture. Which is fine for that age group. But the simplification of that picture has a long history.
Long before species were classified as such and intricate networks of relationships understood, the ancients had their ways of describing the order in nature. They of course observed one creature eating another and had plenty to base their picture on.
The Latin scala naturae translates as ‘scale of nature’, which has often been pictured as a ladder, and the idea of hierarchy inheres deeply in it. Volumes have been written for centuries on how the notion has influenced thought and behaviour outside science but that is besides the immediate point.
The buddhists naturally eschewed explicit hierarchy and went for a cyclical depiction.
A painting of the bhavacakra from Trongsa Dzong in Bhutan
Photo by Stephen Shephard, under CC-BY-SA
The ancient notion continues to leech into not just layperson speak but even scientific discussion and may actually even impede the spirit of research. What chance then do laypeople have of properly conceiving the earth? And so, for a little corrective, try and contemplate the following all at once.
When we picture aquatic birds in our minds, we are likely to see them fishing for food. If told to imagine mortal threats to the bird in the water, you might picture a crocodile. Some fish though, such as the African Tiger fish, turn the tables and prey on birds in flight, a behaviour only recently observed for the first time! New as it is, perhaps fish going ‘birding’ doesn’t come as such a surprise. Fish, after all, come in a wide range of sizes.
How about a spider then? The Goliath ‘bird-eating’ spider Theraphosa blondi is called that because it has occasionally been documented eating birds. The ‘fishing spider’ on the other hand is named for its regular diet, though it too will occasionally go for much larger frogs.
You won’t have to go far to find birds or frogs eating insects like mantises, like your school textbook said they did. But mantises will also routinely go for birds, fish, frogs, mice… anything really. Actually, it should be a bit of a surprise that in English Mantis religiosa is named for its deferential posture and not its indiscriminate hunting behaviour (it is not spelt the ‘preying’ mantis). Apologies if you don’t like puns.
If by now you are now thinking of frogs as a group as hapless victims, don’t. Some frogs eat lizards, snakes, rodents, other frogs, and small birds. At that last link, there’s a delectable picture, so to speak, of an Argentine horned frog about to relish a little mouse, which cannot be included here for want of the right license.
In textbook diagrams, you will have an arrow going one way from a fish in a pond to a bird flying past, and from a frog on the edge to a snake, but rarely do those arrows go the other way. As schoolkids grow and graduate college, at least in their minds, they should.
And let’s be clear. A mouse is a mammal, the same taxonomic class as you. That is why they serve well for testing drugs, because their physiology resembles ours so much – they have the same backbone, same blood, similar brains, a gastrointestinal tract, lungs, hearts, livers arranged much like ours and they suckle their young.
Mammals do reign as apex predators or largest animals in most ecosystems, but they also occur near the bottom of the food chain in many. Insects, arachnids and amphibians regularly dine on members of our class! If you just learned this, it should come as a shock. Doesn’t that mess up the view of the natural world as a neatly ordered ladder?
And that picture, the infinitely more complicated account of the diversity of relationships between classes of living beings, is elementary and essential before we begin to grasp the nature of evolution as a theory-defying, planet-shaping force. Especially so in the run up to the more tantalising offshoots of evolutionary research, typically counter-intuitive to educated laypeople, that successive memos will lay out. Some of it might stun people who study Evolutionary Economics or the applications of Darwinian paradigms to business strategy. But mostly, it is an extended suspense thriller about the unimaginable alcoves where self-organising processes can lead themselves, with unlimited potential for analogies to other systems.
Now, how about some parallels between the topics of the two sections above – the human world and the natural world? That’s the bonus third section below.
On spotting science links above, did you think, “Oh this part’s no use to me”? We hope it will be. In the worlds of design and architecture, the notion that human systems can learn much from natural systems is hip but now quite commonplace. The same is true for institutions and much more, but there analogies are harder to see than in tangible designs. This memo will frequently lay them out.
The financial system and the biogeochemical system are both cases of global commons. One has been a common since before people and time; the other is increasingly evolving into one, almost organically and perhaps in partly replacing the other. Each acts as a support framework, connects forms of capital and enables exchanges between producers and consumers. But policy facets to the comparison are even more illuminating.
Both financial and environmental challenges necessitate states to put their heads together and present similar policy philosophies to the global actors involved. Before a problem threatens to turn into crisis though, states rarely huddle up to discuss strategy. We then have banks that are strongly connected and dependent across the Atlantic facing different attitudes to public bail-outs in countries on either side. For an analogy to the environment, think of migratory animals encountering radically different attitudes to conservation on two ends of a continent.
Plenty of them do get around, and we’re talking much, much farther than wildebeest or caribou. If you are enamored of DHL or MAERSK whenever you think of the staggering scale of the global economy, spare a thought for nature’s champion migrants – from butterflies and dragonflies to leatherback turtles and humpback whales, and of course, birds. If you’re the type who posts triathlon scores or frequent fliers miles online, maybe don’t look up the arctic tern (pictured here). They humble humans brutally. To a tern, the planet is truly home, literally.
Photograph by Tony Smith under CC-BY
Or think of varying blends of permitted emissions escaping borders and gradually mingling and leveling out the global atmospheric composition to an entirely different level that no single jurisdiction desires, monitors or controls.
Everything from the US public debt to welfare systems of the EU gets described as ‘unsustainable’, a buzzword borrowed from the environmental discourse of decades past. Take the fiscal problems partly rooted in demographic change that ail Europe today.
Put simply, welfare benefits such as public pensions are funded through the tax contributions of working younger generations. As populations turn older on average, the incoming funds shrink. Your options are either to raise retirement age or raise taxes on the young. See ‘dependency ratio‘ [PDF].
If your country does not have universal pensions, it is still worth studying this. It is likely the population is young and tax receipts are rising. Which means, your country will probably soon design just such a scheme.
Compare climate policy to funding pensions, for instance. Action is needed now to avert damage far in the future. We know well that every week, month and year of inaction increases the cost for generations to come as we draw closer to “tipping points”, yet known solutions get delayed because governments are reluctant to bear the cost of taking tough measures in the current term. The problem is precisely the same with both policies – one of prolonged time horizons. Why would politicians do something today that costs them the next election when the benefits of the action will accrue many terms from today? Within a state, political will has no real incentive to think far ahead.
Even the intractability of global negotiations on both environment and finance are at least partly down to a common source: the simple historical fact that for about a dozen different reasons (a future memo), different regions of the world arrived at comparable stages of development at different times at different rates.
Through 2018 so far, you have heard of impending trade wars. Just a few years ago, the world feared imminent currency war. When two sides meet to negotiate trade deficits or currency manipulation, the rich world cites unemployment, and the not-so-rich, the fact that even the worst-off households on the other side still have relatively higher incomes. With climate change, the divide arises from the amount of emissions and the timing (state of knowledge at the time of emitting). Finance is only a part of the complex global economy, and the climate is one complex system of the many that make up the earth’s environment. But on dragging feet after years of negotiation, UNFCC at least managed to get countries to offer up their own binding climate targets. For the next round of trade talks, negotiators might want to study how the hundreds of climate committees and working groups broke the stalemate.