November 19, 2017

In praise of the abnormal

It is extraordinary how ineffective are the controls we have set up. Indeed, possibly the best way of gauging the level of crime in a society is by counting the number of policemen engaged in fighting it. The number of doctors in practice provides an indication of the ill-health of its inhabitants, the number of dentists, of the rottenness of their teeth, the number of lawyers of their quarrelsomeness, while the number of conservationist groups reflects the rate at which a society is committing suicide by destroying its resource-base.

If our controls are so ineffective, it means that we have no way of counteracting the biological, social and ecological side-effects of our industrial activities, save, of course, by cutting down on them. De-industrialisation is clearly the only way we can solve the problems facing us, which can be shown to be but the symptoms of the ever deeper and more wide-spread damage our activities are causing to the biosphere of which we are part.

The suggestion, however, that we should de-industrialise is invariably greeted with stark incredulity, ‘You cannot put the clock back’, ‘You cannot stop Progress’—these are the stereotyped responses.

Why one might ask are we so blind to the realities of the world we live in? Why should we refuse to face. facts which, by now, should be evident to all thinking people?

One of the answers lies in our extraordinary notion of what is normal and what is abnormal. Indeed, we have come to regard what, in evolutionary terms, are completely aberrant conditions as being quite normal, simply because we have grown used to them, and have been brainwashed into believing that their undeniable distastefulness must be accepted as part of the natural order of things—a small price, indeed, to pay for the benefit ‘Progress’ confers upon us.

Thus, we have come to regard it as normal to live in urban wildernesses studded with shoddy concrete blocks, gas containers and parking lots, normal to eat tasteless, industrially-produced food, normal that our rivers should be polluted, that the air be foul, that one person in four should die of cancer, that the crime-rate should increase from day to day, that our society should be drifting towards ever more terrifying calamities and that no-one should do anything about it.

Needless to say, in terms of man’s total experience, all these things could not be more abnormal, for we have lived in this way for but a very short period and one that is totally atypical of our experience of living on this planet.

The benefits of Progress are equally abnormal. Mass education in factory-like compounds with computers and audio-visual aids, capital-intensive health services in prison-like hospitals with the aid of drugs, X-ray machines and other elaborate technical devices. Package tours to monumental rabbit warrens on the Costa Brava, colour television sets, motor-cars, electric toothbrushes for everyone—all this is new in terms of man’s total experience. Nor can they be indulged in with impunity since the absurd paraphernalia of the Modern World must constitute ‘randomness’ or waste from the point of view of the biosphere. The more, that in fact, is produced the more must the latter deteriorate—and the less can it constitute a satisfactory habitat for man.

Indeed, until we realise this fundamental principle, and revise our priorities accordingly it will be impossible to solve any of the problems facing our society today.

Of these, one of the foremost is over-population—a subject which no-one is willing to face objectively. The world population is nearly four billion, while every year there are eighty million more to feed. World food production is no longer increasing and will almost certainly start to fall. What are we doing about it? In practical terms, nothing. The distribution of contraceptives to people who are not in the least bit interested in using them, is all that can be reconciled with today’s crazy set of priorities. Few people even dare consider why the population explosion has in fact occurred. If they did they would have to face the unpleasant fact that modern medicine is one of the principal culprits, for it has radically reduced infant humanity. We have been brainwashed into believing that by doing this, it has done something positive for mortality. We are so far out of touch with reality that most of us believe that it has actually exempted us from the operation of natural selection. Needless to say, this is impossible. Modern medicine has not reduced overall deaths. It has only deferred them. In theoretical terms, it has reduced the ‘order’ or ‘negative entropy’ of the human populations and hence of the ecological systems of which it is part. The result is that the former is becoming qualitatively and quantitatively more vulnerable to environmental challenges. Instead of allowing the less adapted among us to be slowly eliminated by the normal operation of natural selection, it has created a situation in which they will simply be eliminated in much larger batches at a slightly later date by famine, epidemics and other disasters. In other words by systematically reducing the stability of populations, societies and ecosystems, we have correspondingly increased the size of the discontinuities to which they must be subjected.

It may well be that the only real alternative is to allow infant mortality, once more, to take its normal toll—a suggestion likely to elicit howls of self-righteous indignation on the part of those brought up on our present set of priorities. Yet in evolutionary terms, it is normal for it to do so; abnormal and counterproductive to prevent it, for by doing so instability is increased.

Take another problem: the pollution of our seas and inland water ways. At the rate at which this is occurring it seems unlikely that our inland seas will survive for more than a decade, while fish from the oceans are likely to be too polluted to eat. Yet we view this apocalyptic situation with almost total equanimity. Are we all mad?

The truth is that industrial undertakings generate waste, and that the number of appropriate dumping sites on land are very limited. Therefore it must be channelled into our rivers or dumped into the seas. We rationalise this by persuading ourselves that it is our legitimate right to use them in this way, and that our limitless ingenuity will enable us some day (regardless of such considerations as the laws of thermodynamics) to make all waste products vanish into thin air.

How does a society develop so distorted a set of priorities? To answer this, one must indulge in a number of theoretical considerations. Thus the most important Principle of Behaviour is that it tends towards stability. This must not be regarded as a point in space-time, but a course or trajectory along which discontinuities and their corrections are reduced to a minimum, i.e. along which, for instance, floods, droughts, famines, epidemics etc. are largely eliminated, as they were among cur hunter-gatherer forbears (so long as they remained in their natural habitat).

The process whereby natural systems are kept on this course, is referred to as control. It is ensured in very much the same way at all levels of organisation. In each case, responses are based on a model of a system’s relationship with its environment and are constantly monitored in terms of it. By the same token the model is constantly modified so that it becomes increasingly accurate, thereby giving rise to correspondingly more adaptive responses.

What is important is that the information constituting this model must represent the system’s total rather than just its most recent experience. It is only in this way that its continuity and hence stability can be maintained—only in this way, in fact, that it can survive. (I refer to this as the Principle of Informational Continuity.) It explains why the transmission of genetic and cultural information should be governed by the same basic laws—a fact which no-one seems to have noticed. It explains why both genetic and cultural information should be non-plastic—the former even less so than the latter, for it must reflect the total experience of a species rather than that of a society.

In a stable situation, however, neither type of information can just reflect the experience of the previous generation, let alone that which has been improvised within a single one to deal with a freak situation which may never recur.

But there is another essential principle of control: it can only ensure the system’s stability if the environment closely resembles that in which it evolved. Deviations are only tolerable within certain limits. Otherwise, quite clearly, the information upon which its experience is based, will cease to be relevant. (I refer to this as the Environmental Limits Principle.)

If a society is geared, as is ours, to the systematic transformation of its natural environment, it will have to ‘adapt’ to situations for which its experience provides ever fewer precedents. It must in fact increasingly improvise, and it can only do so, by abandoning the goal of stability and continuity—since the information upon which the improvisations are based will no longer reflect the society’s total experience (i.e. it will have violated the Informational Continuity Principle).

The responses mediated in such conditions are referred to by Boyden as pseudo-adaptations. They are not true adaptations, as are those which occur within the framework of the Evolutionary process since rather than solving problems, they merely replace them with new and usually more serious ones.

Worse still, to rationalise the hectic changes to which we become committed, we have been led to develop a general model, or worldview, in terms of which the relevance of the past is denied, and originality and improvisation are exalted as the ultimate achievements of our species.

Thus, the mechanism which normally leads man to preserve his environment, functions indirectly, by causing him to preserve the model and associated behaviour pattern, whose adoption leads him to do so. When environmental changes cause this control mechanism to break down the model and associated behaviour pattern are then transformed to favour yet further environmental changes. Thus, ironically, the very mechanism which has been designed to ensure the preservation of our environment gives rise to a chain reaction towards ever greater environmental destruction.

Only in this way can we explain the development of the aberrant worldview of Industrialism, and hence why we have come to regard as normal those things which are most artificial, most contrived and most obviously undesirable. Only in this way can we explain why the ritual dousing of our farm crops with a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals should be regarded as normal and in fact ‘scientific’, while those who advocate proved agricultural methods are derisively referred to—even by such supposedly enlightened ecologists as Professor Mellanby—as ‘muck and mystery men’. It also explains why those who prefer to eat the sort of diet we have been adapted to by our evolution, rather than consume synthetic foods of which our bodies have had no previous experience, are scornfully referred to as ‘cranks’ and ‘food-faddists’. Things, in fact, are completely the wrong way round, and this wrong-way-roundness is institutionalised by our Government’s attitude to change. Since to them it appears normal continuously to transform the environment it follows that to prevent any part of this process of change on the grounds that it may be ruining our health or damaging our physical surroundings, is construed as an attempt to divert the course that they believe we must take. The onus of proof of damage is thereby made to rest with those who advocate caution while technological change is assumed to be innocent until proved guilty. Our view of what constitutes ‘scientific method’ makes it difficult, often virtually impossible to do this until the guilt is revealed by some terrible catastrophe such as the thalidomide case or the mercury at Minamata.

Yet we know that the World worked very well without persistent pesticides, food additives, motorways, high-rise buildings and nuclear power stations. It has done so for millions of years. To believe that it works with them, however, is a pure act of faith which is, in fact, unjustified theoretically and to a great degree, empirically as well.

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