Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Reductionism and trash

If you look at the titles of Ph.D. theses today, you wouldn't be admonished for thinking that a lot of the work academics do can have no bearing on things outside of their sub-discipline. We have created walls and artificial boundaries between fields of study, and created specialised languages that we within specific disciplines use to communicate with others in "our" field. Also, we have given proxies to invisible companies and men in suits to provide us with essential services such as food, clothing and shelter. We have centralised the production and distribution of the necessities of life. Although we would like to think our world is "globalised" and "flat," I believe the world we inhabit is highly specialised and centralised. This specialisation is at some level (obviously from a neoconservative economic standpoint) semi-defensible given assumptions of "economies of scale," but arguments cannot hold water from a moral and ethical perspective.Wendell Berry likes to call this phenomenon "reductionism."

We have defined these boundaries for two reasons...
  • It is impossible for us to know all of the variables of a given system or problem, and so in order for us to stand any chance of coming up with an elegant solution or number, we need to reduce the number of variables; we need to define limited boundaries so that we can still capture the basic dynamics of interactions between various parts of a system, without overburdening our computers and calculating gadgets.
  • We seem to think that we can know how complex systems work, and that given enough time and resources, the outcomes of such endeavours are believable
The latter point can be defended, but only within the context of an individual discipline or sub-discipline. When we try to optimise a system or try to maximise some outcome of a system, we can continuously tinker with the variables we choose to work with. However, what we fail to recognise sometimes is that just because a system is optimised for one particular situation, it isn't necessarily optimised for another situation or system. The output of our narrowly defined system will always have an impact on the variables that were left outside of its boundaries. A great example of this is trash. Trash is the result of an "optimum" solution to a very narrowly and myopically defined system, and that system is our pleasure and convenience. The variables that can play a role in our pleasure and convenience are time, money and place. The boundaries of the system are defined as such, and we consciously or subconsciously defend the definition of those boundaries when we accept the formation of trash. If I am in a rush to grab a bite to eat, the optimum solution is for me to microwave a microwave meal that came in a box with a plastic bowl and thin plastic cover, or to run to Jimmy John's and buy a sandwich wrapped in wax paper, along with a drink in a wax/paper cup with a plastic lid and straw. However, this is not the optimum solution for the Earth that provided the resources to produce the plastics, papers and boxes. The outputs of our pleasure and convenience are too much for nature to handle.

We cannot continually overlook the impacts of our actions on nature by defining the boundaries of our systems for our "ease" and "convenience."

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