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philosophy & ethics

The rise of the system era

in philosophy & ethics

This short text is inspired (and in part summarized) by Ivan Illich’s view on the history of tools and the rise of a new epoch which according to him, the concept of system represents. I have freely paraphrased, summarized, and modified the text as narrated here.[1] I do not claim that my understanding of Ivan Illich’s view is accurate or complete (one need to be much more knowledgeable for that kind of confidence), but I have done my best. 

One of the key concepts of our age is the concept of “system”. System, not in the sense that we refer to “system of thought” or “system of book keeping”, but rather in the sense that was first used in the science of cybernetics. System, in this sense, is a metaphor for the world of computer, genetic engineering, and information technology. The rise of a system-based worldview, represents the end of an era, which Ivan Illich calls “the age of instrumentality”, and the beginning of a new epoch. The age of instrumentality was an era in which our relationship to the outside world was mediated and shaped via our tools. Tool, in the vocabulary of Ivan Illich, encompassrs a wide ranging meaning and refers to any engineered device. Before the beginning of the age of system, the characteristic of tools were their distinctness and disconnectedness from their users. Something which Ivan Illich refers to as “distality” or being “distal”. But in systems, there is no such distality.

Before the 12th century, tools were considered as extensions of the human body. However, gradually since that time, a clear border between the tools and their users was formed. This marked the rise of the age of instrumentality (tools as distal instruments). However, in systems this distinction is removed. Human becomes part of the system and operates within the system.

Insofar as there is a distality between human and her tools, tools can encompass some of the intentions of its user. Tools are subjected to our free will and act as instruments that help us to achieve our intended purpose. For example, a knife, depending on the intention of its user, can be used for preparing food, self-defense, or decorating a garden.

But this is not true for systems. Whatever purpose they are designed for, they encompass us. The user of system, not only operates within it, but also follows the function which the system is designed for. In other words, a system does not follow the intention of its user, but only operates according to the nature of its design. Our use of a system is done within its parameters.

The importance of this change is due to the impact that it will have on our view toward ourselves and our surrounding world. When the world is viewed as a vast and interconnected system, which covers the microscopic ream of cells and the macroscopic realm of the biosphere; the earth, as an external reality on which we are standing, disappears from beneath our feet. System is a fundamentally abstract concept. It is not based on any stepping stone, and there is no external point of reference on which we can stand and allow us to look at it from outside or to influence it.

Within a period of one or two generations, computer has become a key metaphor for our awareness towards ourselves and the world. The same way that the invention of wheel allowed us to speak of “wheel of fate”, or the invention of writing allowed us to speak of the “book of nature”, the rise of computer allows us to have a cybernetic view toward the world: world as network, as eco-system, as a genetic text.

This new image of the world is deeply changing us. We are no more standing with one foot in the world and one foot outside it, as we did previously as the readers of the book of nature or people with written destinies. Instead, we have become part of the system.

  1. Illich, I., 2000. Corruption of Christianity. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Toronto, Ont.  

Good will

in philosophy & ethics

“Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action.

Kant’s argument that to act in the morally right way one must act purely from duty begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself and good without qualification. Something is “good in itself” when it is intrinsically good, and “good without qualification”, when the addition of that thing never makes a situation ethically worse. Kant then argues that those things that are usually thought to be good, such as intelligence, perseverance and pleasure, fail to be either intrinsically good or good without qualification. Pleasure, for example, appears not to be good without qualification, because when people take pleasure in watching someone suffering, this seems to make the situation ethically worse. He concludes that there is only one thing that is truly good:

Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.”[1]

  1. Deontological ethics, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. 30-Mar-2014. 

Dolphins are non-human persons

in philosophy & ethics

“India has officially recognized dolphins as non-human persons, whose rights to life and liberty must be respected. … The movement to recognize whale and dolphins as individuals with self-awareness and a set of rights gained momentum three years ago in Helsinki, Finland when scientists and ethicists drafted a Declaration of Rights for Cetaceans. ‘We affirm that all cetaceans as persons have the right to life, liberty and well-being,’ they wrote.The signatories included leading marine scientist Lori Marino who produced evidence that cetaceans have large, complex brains especially in areas involved in communication and cognition. Her work has shown that dolphins have a level of self-awareness similar to that of human beings. Dolphins can recognize their own reflection, use tools and understand abstract concepts. They develop unique signature whistles allowing friends and family members to recognize them, similar to the way human beings use names. ‘They share intimate, close bonds with their family groups. They have their own culture, their own hunting practices – even variations in the way they communicate,’ said FIAPO’s Puja Mitra.”[1]

  1. “Dolphins gain unprecedented protection in India | Environment | DW.DE | 24.05.2013,” DW.DE. [Online]. Available: http://www.dw.de/dolphins-gain-unprecedented-protection-in-india/a-16834519. [Accessed: 23-Mar-2014]. 

Is ecological modernization our last best hope?

in philosophy & ethics

Good summary and ecological modernization published on Yale 360, “New Green Vision: Technology As Our Planet’s Last Best Hope by fred pearce“:

There is a new environmental agenda out there. One that is inimical to many traditional conservationists, but which is picking up kudos and converts. It calls itself environmental modernism — which for many is an oxymoron. Wasn’t the environmentalism of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Greenpeace’s warriors against industrial whaling and the nuclear industry, and efforts to preserve the world’s last wild lands, meant to be the antithesis of the modern industrial world?

But the prophets of ecological modernism believe technology is the solution and not the problem. They say that harnessing innovation and entrepreneurship can save the planet and that if environmentalists won’t buy into that, then their Arcadian sentiments are the problem.

The modernists wear their environmentalism with pride, but are pro-nuclear, pro-genetically modified crops, pro-megadams, pro-urbanization and pro-geoengineering of the planet to stave off climate change. They say they embrace these technologies not to conquer nature, like old-style 20th century modernists, but to give nature room. If we can do our business in a smaller part of the planet — through smarter, greener and more efficient technologies — then nature can have the rest.

While many mainstream environmentalists want to make peace with nature through the sustainable use of natural resources, the modernists want to cut the links between mankind and nature. So the modernists are also the proponents of rewilding, the restoration of large tracts of habitat and the reintroduction of the species that once lived there. Rewilding is a popular theme in modern environmentalism. But the modernists say that without technology, it can only be done by culling humanity. With technology, they say, we can more painlessly usher in the return of the wild, because more land can be liberated.

This is deeply heretical for many mainstream environmentalists. So the question is how we should respond. Should we condemn the modernists for hijacking and subverting environmentalism in the name of capitalist and consumerist greed? Or do we concede they may have a point. The one certainty, I think, is that we cannot ignore it. The debate has to be joined.

The tension about how far technology can solve our environmental problems and how far it exacerbates them is not new. Didn’t the automobile stop our cities being knee-deep in horse manure? But the emergence of an agenda harnessing technological advance to the restoration of nature is newer.

It emerged prominently with the 2009 publication of Stewart Brand’s bookWhole Earth Discipline: Why Dense Cities, Nuclear Power, Transgenic Crops, Restored Wildlands and Geo-engineering are Necessary. Holed up on his houseboat in Sausalito, California, the 1960s hippie guru who founded the Whole Earth Catalog, has morphed into a techno-optimist.

But pre-dating Brand by a couple of decades was Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University. An early advocate of action to fight climate change in the 1970s, he decided in the 1980s to start seeking solutions to our rising tide of environmental problems. He talked to technologists, and after supping with the devil, he emerged to call for a “great restoration” of nature by packing us all into high-density cities and intensifying farming. There is plenty of scope to do this with existing technology. As he told me a few years ago: “If all the world’s farms could meet U.S. farmers’ current yields, we would need only half as much farmland.”

Others have followed the leads of Ausubel and Brand. Notable is the philosophical U-turn of the British environmental writer Mark Lynas in his 2011 book, The God Species. The environmental modernists now have their own organizations too, such as the Breakthrough Institute, run by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who gained prominence a decade ago with their critique of the green movement, “The Death of Environmentalism.” And this thinking has reached into the heart of some of the most hallowed conservation groups. The Breakthrough Institute’s fellows include Peter Kareiva, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, who was an active participant at the institute’s conference last month in Brand’s Sausalito back yard.

The conference, titled Creative Destruction, embraced the ideas of the early 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter, which are currently undergoing a revival. Schumpeter argued that capitalism is driven not, as Adam Smith said, by incremental efforts to cut costs and boost profits in a competitive market, but by the pursuit of game-changing technological transformations. Nitrogen fixing for fertilizer, the invention of the automobile, the Green Revolution, the Internet, and the microcomputer have all transformed the world, tearing down old orders and making huge profits for those who started it.

Schumpeter’s ideas are a kind of economists’ version of the biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s take on evolution as happening mostly in transformational leaps, which he called punctuated equilibrium, rather than through gradual, incremental change. Of course, the modernists see green technologies as the game-changers of the 21st century. In their view, all the planet needs is eco-versions of Steve Jobs.

A central agenda of the modernists is how to do conservation of nature. Existing conservation strategies simply do not work, they say. Human activity spreads inexorably. What is needed is to use the land we take more intensively, so that more can stay unfenced. The institute’s Linus Blomqvist argues that, even as the world’s population continues to grow, and as consumption rises, “land use can peak out in the next two decades.”

All environmentalists would applaud that. But to achieve it, Blomqvist says, requires a lot of things they are conventionally less keen on, such as the further spread of large-scale industrial agriculture, accelerated urbanization, and a switch out of using “renewable” biological resources. Shellenberger says that harvesting nature “is neither profitable nor sustainable” — it cannot alleviate poverty and leads to environmental degradation.

The modernist approach to conservation is to seek out technological substitutes for crops. We should, they say, give up cotton in favor of polyester or whatever else the chemists can come up with to clothe us. We should turn our noses up at wild fish and embrace aquaculture instead. Farmers should discard organic fertilizer in favor of chemicals.

Martin Lewis of Stanford University, a prominent environmental modernist, calls for the “de-ecologization of our material welfare.” Environmentalism has been taken over by “Arcadian sentiment” and has “become its own antithesis,” he says. “Only technology can save nature.”

Agro-ecologists who would have farmers sharing the land with nature in the name of “sustainable development” are wrong, say the modernists. Rather than “sharing” the land we should be “sparing” it by maximizing yield on the bits we choose to use.

The prize in all this is Ausubel’s “great restoration.” This rewilding of nature will see American bison roaming across new “buffalo commons” on the Great Plains, as well as wolves reconquering Europe, and — if Brand’s hopes for using genetic technology to recreate the animals we drove to extinction come true — then a de-extinction, too. Imagine passenger pigeons filling the North American skies once more, and woolly mammoths roaming across a vast Pleistocene park in Siberia.

Is this a green utopia or a nightmare?

In truth, some degree of environmental modernism is part of the worldview of all but the most fundamentalist greens. Whether driving a Prius, putting solar panels on our roof, or installing a low-flush toilet, we are buying into a version of the eco-modernists’ call for environmental efficiency to be a watchword of conservation. Likewise, the idea of “decoupling” economic growth from resource use and pollution is a common aspiration, which only technology can achieve.

I have previously argued here that too many environmentalists have gotten stuck with some cozy nostrums that they are reluctant to take a long hard look at. Many turn their face against technologies such as GM crops and nuclear energy out of sheer revulsion rather than any rational analysis of what they might deliver in terms of protecting land or taming climate change.

Modernists have plenty to say on this theme. They argue, for instance, that only wishful thinking leads ecologists to argue that ecosystems with maximum biodiversity deliver more “ecosystem services” like flood protection, soil conservation, carbon capture, and nutrient cycling. Actually, biodiversity has little to do with it, says Blomqvist. “The basic functioning of the biosphere relies largely on photosynthesis.”

Many ecologists would contest that. And there is much else that can be criticized in the modernists’ playbook.

Technology often doesn’t deliver even its own prospectus. Some say the Green Revolution, which doubled global food production in the late 20th century, has now stalled. And it may not just be the Green Revolution. Canadian futurologist Vaclav Smil, speaking at the Sausalito event, argued that “all the essential technologies” of modern life are at least a century old. He noted, for example, that the basic process of manufacturing nitrogen fertilizer from the air “hasn’t changed since 1894.”

And if mainstream environmentalists have a weakness for Arcadian myths, then the modernist agenda too has its own blind spots and contradictions. A strict effort to rewild nature and to cut our use of nature for ecosystem services would surely rule out using forests as carbon sinks. Do the modernists really oppose that? And if they make an exception here, then where does the boundary lie? And how do they answer the concern that, whatever the claims about rewilding, one result of their blueprint is likely to be the commodification of nature.

That issue was raised in Sausalito by Emma Marris, author ofRambunctious Garden, a manifesto for a reassessment of alien species. Maybe they are not so bad, she says. She was awarded the Breakthrough Institute’s Paradigm Award and is clearly regarded by environmental modernists as one of them. But how so? Defenders of alien species — and the value of novel mixtures of natives and non-natives that dominate many modern ecosystems — see the boundaries between the wild and the rest as largely in our imaginations. And in a world of climate change, they think going back is a physical impossibility.

If we cannot set nature free from the impact of humans, then the modernist case for doing so starts to come unstuck. For instance, we may be able to recreate the woolly mammoths, but remaking their habitat might be beyond us.

Others argue that more intensive land use will not save what is left so much as poison it and that the modernist agenda lacks a social and political compass. Critics say it fails to address what the existing farmers and other occupants of the planet’s rural landscape might think. They won’t all go and live in cities. Instead, they seem likely to become victims of the mother of all land grabs, whether for industrial agriculture or rewilding.

But that is not to condemn the modernist enterprise. By raising questions about why mainstream environmentalists buy into some aspects of modernism and some technologies, while resisting others, the modernists force us to ask exactly what we want. And how we think we can get it. They may even light the path to a way out of the environmentalists’ constant catalogue of failure in the face of the relentless advance of what their enemies call “progress.” We cannot and should not duck this argument.

Scientific bias

in education & literacy/philosophy & ethics

Asymmetric scientific publication (favoring successful experiments such as medical trials over failed attempts) may not-only be inefficient  but also unethical.  Good thing about this video is that it is not coming from STS guys but is from a member of scientific community itself.

Beyond human exemptionalism

in philosophy & ethics

According to “human exemptionalist paradigm” (HEP), human beings are exempt from environmental constraints because they are equipped with technology. It has been argued by many environmental thinkers that a shift from this paradigm is critically needed and they suggest a new paradigm called “new ecological paradigm” (NEP). According to Dunlap (2008) there are five facets that can allow us to scale the degree of the shift from HEP to NEP:

  1. Recognition of limits to growth
  2. Recognition of non-anthropocentrism
  3. Recognition of fragility of nature’s balance
  4. Recognition of untenability of exemptionalistm
  5. Recognition of ecological crisis

Dunlap, R. E. (2008). The New Environmental Paradigm Scale: From Marginality to Worldwide Use. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(1), 3–18. doi:10.3200/JOEE.40.1.3-18


in philosophy & ethics

These notes are from the “The logic of sufficiency” [2] as described in [1].

The idea of sufficiency begins to shift to the principle of sufficiency when structure is needed for enactment, when more than sensory perception of “enoughness” or “too muchness” is needed to recognise excess and to act. Unlike the normatively neutral concepts of efficiency and cooperation, Thomas Princen contends that sufficiency as a principle aimed at ecological overshoot compels decision makers to ask when too much resource use or too little regeneration risks important values such as ecological integrity and social cohesion: “when material gains now preclude material gains in the future; when consumer gratification or investor reward threatens economic security; when benefits internalized depend on costs externalized”. Princen sets out an argument for the installation of social organizing principles attentive to risks, especially those risks that are displaced in time and place, are desperately needed in the belief that sufficiency principles (as opposed to mere efficiency) such as restraint, respite, precaution, polluter pays, zero, and reverse onus, have the virtue of partially resurrecting well-established notions like moderation and thrift, ideas that have never completely disappeared.

Princon’s mentions a few real world examples where the logic of sufficiency has already been embraced by companies or communities as the basis of doing well. With examples ranging from timbering and fishing to automobility and meat production, Princen shows that sufficiency is perfectly sensible and yet absolutely contrary or modern society’s dominant principle, efficiency. He argues that seeking enough when more is possible is both intuitive and rational –personally, organizationally, and ecologically rational. And under global ecological constraints, it is ethical. Over the long term, an economy –indeed a society– cannot operate as if there’s never enough and never too much.

[1] J. Barry and P. Doran, “Refining green political economy: from ecological modernisation to economic security and sufficiency,” Analyse und Kritik-Zeitschrift fur Sozialwissenschaften, vol. 28, no. 2, p. 250, 2006.

[2] T. Princen, The logic of sufficiency. MIT Press, 2005.

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