Monday, February 06, 2012

NATURE IS NOT A MACHINE

I’ve become quite divorced from the printed word since I moved to the woods, what with the internet, to keep me appraised of the alert level back in the intensive care units commonly referred to as cities, and Netflix, to show me the latest paintings rendering the ongoing saga on the cave walls. I’ve even backed away from the written word, sparsely maintaining this blog and barely reading others out of a sense of futility in dealing with western civilization’s mechanization of nature.

I mention this hiatus to emphasize the inertia being overcome by my growing fascination with a book I’ve been circling since it was published: Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan. His investigation, into the evolution of human eating habits, and mine, into the evolution of human culture from symbiotic hunter-gatherers to fast food fed corporate nations exploiting citizens like so many feed lot cattle, find the same truth at every turn.

I was struck by the metaphor for the corporatization of all phases of daily life Pollan creates with this eloquent indictment of agribusiness’s expedient substitution of synthetic chemicals for nature’s time evolved cycle of soil:
To reduce such a vast biological complexity to NPK represented the scientific method at its reductionist worst. Complex qualities are reduced to simple quantities; biology gives way to chemistry. As (Sir Albert) Howard was not the first to point out, that method can only deal with one or two variables at a time. The problem is that once science has reduced a complex phenomenon to a couple of variables, however important they may be, the natural tendency is to overlook everything else, to assume that what you can measure is all there is, or at least all that really matters. When we mistake all we can know for all there is to know, a healthy appreciation for a mystery like soil fertility gives way to the hubris that we can treat nature as a machine. Once that leap has been made, one input follows another, so that when the synthetic nitrogen fed to the plants makes them more attractive to insects and vulnerable to disease, as we have discovered, the farmer turns to pesticides to fix his broken machine.
When I first read the foregoing I entertained an overlapping image of public schools’ expediently injecting the establishment’s code of behavior into each crop of children whose obedience leaves no time for independent symbiotic experience of the nature they are being systematically taught to impatiently exploit. Once the children become educated cogs in the machinery of western civilization, one step follows another, so that when the synthetic laws containing them make them rage against their fellow man and more vulnerable to psychotic meltdown, the establishment turns to prisons, insane asylums and the death penalty to fix its broken machine.

The living universe is too complex to be reduced to any lesser metaphor without its quality giving way to simple quantity; a good story giving way to dogmatic, evangelistic truth whose deniers become punishable. Nature’s one ball of wax.

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