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Going Around in Circles

I don't know if any of you are familiar with the book The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. It is meticulously researched and very well-written, and really should be required reading for anyone in North America who eats. (Which is, I think, most of us.) This book led me to the thoughts I want to share with you this morning.

In the southern part of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, some 60 km from where I was born, there is a large town called Staunton (pronounced Stanton), just west of I-81. Near Staunton is a tiny village called Swoope (pronounced Swope), and just outside Swoope lies the Polyface Farm. It covers some 550 acres. There is a pasture on that farm, made up of several different varieties of grasses, and sub-divided by some highly portable electric fencing. Cattle graze a section of the pasture, taking nourishment from the grasses they eat, and returning nutrients to the soil in the form of manure. Each day, the cattle are moved to a new section of the pasture lest any one section be over-grazed. In fact, the cattle take only one bite from the crown of each grass plant, something they will naturally do if the number of cattle is just right for the amount of available grass. (They do this because that first bite is the tastiest and most nutritious, and they seem to know this instinctively.) Three days later, chickens are allowed to graze the same section of pasture. By this time the larvae of various bugs have found a feast in the patties of cow manure, and are just about to burst forth into bugs. (Their gestation period is four days.) Most of these bugs would, in turn, make the lives of the cattle quite miserable. To the chickens, however, these swollen larvae are incredibly rich packets of protein. So the chickens peck out the larvae and eat them, thus controlling the bugs which would otherwise torment the cattle. The chickens, meanwhile, grow fat and happy, and produce very healthy eggs and/or very healthy chicken for the table. In the course of this, the chickens spread the cow manure a little more widely with their scratching and pecking. They also produce an incredibly rich nitrogen fertilizer for the pasture in the form of their own manure. This might become too rich for the pasture, but the chickens, like the cows, are moved to a new pasture daily. The pasture, because it was cropped so carefully by the cows, is soon ready for another rotation of animals. (Grass grows at a truly astonishing rate when it is subjected to one-bite grazing.)

Now, a question for you: is this farm producing beef, or milk, or chicken, or eggs, or pasture, or long-term soil conservation and improvement? The answer, of course, is Yes!

This farm (of which the pasture is just one part) is set up on the model that nature provides. Every part of it is integrated with every other part, and the whole thing forms a large, complex, and eminently sustainable system. It strikes me as more than a little strange that a farm set up this way is so far out of sync with our modern ways of thinking.

Our modern society has taught us (conditioned us) to think and function in a linear way. There is cause, then effect, there is input, then output, etc. We have been enculturated to believe that this kind of thinking - rational, deductive, linear - is the ideal to be sought whenever possible. It is at the heart of the scientific method, it is a product of the Enlightenment (or the Endarkenment), it is essential to developing and maintaining the highest levels of efficiency in whatever we are trying to do. (Or so we're told.) It has also enabled the staggering amount of technological and creative work that has been done over the past two hundred years or so. It has become, simply, the way things are. Understanding things the way they are has come to mean breaking them down into progressively smaller and smaller building blocks, constituents of their being. If we can just break them down finely enough, we will finally understand them fully, and then be able to manipulate them to serve us better and more efficiently.

But there have been some major wrinkles which have developed in this approach. It seems that, every time we finally approach the ultimate smallest particle (and thus the ultimate key to understanding), it manages to slip away from us, to elude our prying eyes and minds. It's frustratingly un-co-operative. But modern physics (of which I understand precious little) is revealing to us a very interesting phenomenon: these tiny little particles don't seem to be particles at all, at least not in the usual sense. They can't seem to make up their minds whether to be discreet, finite particles, or tiny little bundles of energy. In fact, they seem to go back and forth from one state to the other at an astonishing rate. Finding this particular pot of gold at the end of the rainbow confounds our search for the ultimate particle pretty thoroughly.

The PolyFace Farm way of looking at things may be out of sync with so-called modern thought, but it certainly does seem to work. The process is much more complex than I have described here, but I hope the point is clear: this process is decidedly non-linear. What I have been describing is a system. It involves many different elements, all of which co-operate with each other, and through that co-operation bring a remarkable stability and long-term sustainability to the system as a whole. Like all systems, it is itself a system within a larger system, and is made up in turn of numerous smaller systems. And the pasture operation is a part of the larger system which is the whole farm (including woodlot, crop fields, streams, ponds, etc.). It is this understanding of the world around us as a carefully choreographed group of systems - a system of systems, if you will - that is giving rise to a new and, I believe, absolutely essential view of the world and our place in it.

Joanna Macy, in her book Coming Back to Life, has pointed out some of the salient characteristics of such systems. She notes that these characteristics hold true for virtually all open systems, whether biological, ecological, mental, social, or what have you. In very abbreviated form, these characteristics are:

1) Each system is a whole. It is not reducible to its components; its identity and functioning arise from the interrelationships and interactions of its parts. This interaction makes the system open, in the sense that its future nature cannot be predicted.

2) Because open systems have information, matter, and energy flowing continuously through them, they tend to self-stabilize. Thus they can self-regulate in response to changes in their environment. So when I cut my finger a couple of weeks ago in being a little too enthusiastic dicing an onion, the system that is my body mobilized what was needed to make the repair and get me back into one piece.

3) Open systems evolve in and into increasing complexity. This is what underlies the whole concept of evolution as we usually think of it. When the environment in which a system exists changes (and stays changed), the system either breaks down completely, or it adapts to the changes by reorganizing itself around new principles and norms. If the resulting changes in behaviour respond well to the changes in the surrounding environment, then the system flourishes and grows. If not, the system changes more, or breaks down.

4) Every system is a holon. That is, it is both a system in its own right, as well as a part of a larger system, as well as a collection (and integration) of sub-systems. As an example, look at the pasture of PolyFace Farm, which I described earlier. At each level of this system, the properties that emerge for that level cannot be predicted by looking at the constituent parts. Those properties arise from the rich interactions of all of those parts, which are in themselves systems. This means that order (which in this case might reasonably be called natural order) is not imposed from the top down, as our western scientific way of thinking and seeing would have it, but rather such order arises from the bottom up. Along the way it generates co-operation among all the various systems and sub-systems.

This understanding of the world around us as holonistic, as being made up of holons - of integrated, nested, and mutually supportive systems - marks a profound and far-reaching change. It is as much a way of seeing as a way of understanding. It is a shift from substances to processes, from parts to wholes. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called it the biggest bite out of the Tree of Knowledge in two thousand years.

According to fundamental Unitarian principles, member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association covenant to affirm and promote ... Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. This living systems theory that I have been talking about is a recognition and expression of the reality of that interdependent web. Endlessly diverse, always surprising, deeply and passionately alive, rarely predictable, continually living, dying, and being reborn ... this is the very essence of a living holonistic system. Seeing the world in this way changes us. No longer can we stand aside and moralize about the damage we have done and continue to do to the world in which we live. Rather, we come to understand at a very deep level that we are in pain, that we are suffering, because we are no more or less than a system within the larger system - a holon. It has been our perceived self-interest which has gotten us into such a mess. Ironically, it will be our much deeper self-interest arising from this new awareness that will lead us to evolve in ways that stabilize and sustain the systems of which we are a part and those which are a part of us.

One of the ways that the notion of circularity has impacted me is that it has caused me to change my glasses, the lenses through which I view the world. When I shop, I no longer base decisions solely, or even mainly, on the bottom line - who has the lowest price. I'm getting more and more interested in where something came from, how it was made, how it got here, how many people are taking a slice out of it (and how many were deprived of their slice) before it gets into my hands.

Recently I browsed some of the merchandise section of I noticed a scarf offered for sale, made by a small women's co-operative in Puno, Peru. Puno sits on the shores of Lake Titicaca (at an elevation of about 12,000'). It caught my eye, at least in part, because Charlotte and I were in Puno briefly during a three week trip to Peru in 1995. Now I'm speculating here, but I think this is at least a good possibility, and I am quite certain that this pattern, with different names, has been played out thousands of times around the world. It may be that that women's co-operative was able to get its start because of a small (eg $150) loan from a local NGO. They might have used that money to purchase a sewing machine. That NGO, in turn, was able to offer this loan (known as micro-financing) because an organization called Oikocredit Co-Operative, or another similar organization, provided funding to it. Oikocredit could do that because several people around the world invested in Oikocredit. (Oikocredit shares hold their face value, and provide an annual 2% dividend, which doesn't look so bad in today's economy.) The scarves which were being offered for sale were being marketed world-wide, through an agency which deals only with fair-traded merchandise, and reaches around the world through the Internet. The whole process seems to go around in circles ... and it works for everybody concerned.

Fredericton's current debate about the possibility of a Costco outlet being built here is a good example of a contrasting approach, a contrasting vision. Costco holds a lot of appeal: a huge range of merchandise under one roof, very low prices, a lot of brand names, and so on. Viewed in a western, linear, bottom-line perspective, the arguments in favour of Costco are compelling. But what if it is viewed through the lens of a system perspective? It yields a very different picture, and a whole lot of questions.

What would the effects be on existing local merchants, who are and long have been part of the community? How would Costco impact the local social system? What about the ecological system, including the UNB woodlot wetlands where its location is being proposed? Where do the Costco products come from, and how do they get here? What is the larger environmental cost of that process? Are their products being produced (and packaged, shipped, distributed, etc.) in a way that offers long-term sustainability to all the parties involved? Do they carry fair-traded merchandise? If Costco were to set up shop in Fredericton, would I buy from it?

With the possible exception of the last one, those questions are tough to answer. They are complex, interwoven, and very broad, and the answers - or even the information required to formulate the answers - is not at all easy to come by. But they are the kind of questions that a systems view of the world raises. (And there are many more possible questions; the list was intended to be representative, not exhaustive.) Wrestling with them will sometimes drive us around in circles. But isn't that the way things actually work anyway? Maybe that is exactly the path on which we need to spend more time.