The natural environment cannot be “restored”

We didn’t flag up this statement in the National Food Strategy Call for Evidence as it didn’t seem appropriate in our submission. Nonetheless, we think it’s important we challenge it now.

It’s the third bullet point under the fourth paragraph which starts:

It is intended to be an overarching strategy for government, designed to ensure that our food system     . . . “restores and enhances the natural environment for the next generation in this country”

PART ONE: The environment as a geophysical entity
Consider, just in this first instance, the UK environment as a geophysical entity only. Rock, soil, air, fresh water, ocean, fire. Weather. Seasons.

Our minds are severely limited in understanding astronomical objects moving around and their effects, even our local ones, Sun, Earth and Moon. As Richard Dawkins has pointed out: our brains have evolved to cope with medium sized objects moving through the African savannah at well below the speed of light.

(Way, way below 186K miles per second. My guess, fwiw, is that our brains can estimate the relative speeds of things travelling 0-20mph, and judge all greater relative speeds as (a) fast, (b) far too fast, (3) what the heck was that and (4) eh? didn’t see anything.)

One of my favourite Terry Pratchett quotations is about our cognitive inability to compute deep time:

It’s well known that stone can think, because the whole of electronics is based on that fact, but in some universes men spend ages looking for other intelligences in the sky without once looking under their feet. That’s because they’ve got the time-span all wrong. From stone’s point of view the universe is hardly created and mountain ranges are bouncing up and down like organ stops while continents zip backward and forward in general high spirits, crashing into each other from the sheer joy of momentum and getting their rocks off. It’s going to be quite some time before stone notices its disfiguring skin disease and starts to scratch, which is just as well.”

Even if not a single living entity had done any of their stuff on earth, the UK-as-geophysical-entity would not be today what it was yesterday, let alone millennia or aeons ago.

PART TWO: Biology happens. As its wont, a lot of it
And many living entities have done their stuff upon this geophysical world. All those alive now are still doing their stuff. Or, if you like to think local, all the living entities just within the UK today. Tomorrow will be different. (Living beings and/or their progeny migrate; it’s among our many talents.)

We’re talking Biology. Yes, a lot of it.

When it comes to Life in all its myriad forms, its signature tune is complexity, too. And much of it is within scales we can perceive. Some, indeed, seems ‘obvious’ to us. And if we have experience of a particular system, we can perceive aspects of it that other people can’t. For example, think how gardeners observe things that a non-gardener doesn’t even see, how they intuit what’s been going on with plants and soils.

No-one, though, is good at computing much about complexity, even within the ‘medium sized objects moving through the African savannah at well below the speed of light‘ scales.

Many elements are interacting, the whole shebang is dynamic, continuously changing, thus nearly all of it is opaque to us, out of our perception, so not possible for our introspection.

Here’s a non-starter notion: “Simplifying complexity”.

When attempting it, proponents often start drawing ‘systems’ involving a lot of oval shapes and arrows, along with exhortations for ‘systems thinking’.

Here’s a glimpse as to why “simplifying complexity” is a non-starter:

Events and their circumstances are complicit; there are no simple cause and effect relationships. Actions, events, contexts are multi-causal and recursive. Interacting complex systems modify each other, over and over, and any result can differ radically from what’s gone before. Sub-plots can take on new significance when external events or accidents impinge. It  can change irreversibly at one or multiple scales.

All living entities, so us lot and all our human constructs, such as communities, societies, companies and other organisations, then can and often do take other routes, becoming different entities in a different world.

Old rules don’t work, order whirls, surprise is unnervingly insistent, no-one is in control.

And when Biology enters the mix, uncountable numbers of highly dynamic systems interact rapidly at multiple levels, compound recursions are inevitable, there’s ever more diversity at every level.

PART THREE: Nothing can return to what it was
We thus can’t ‘restore the environment’.

Any more than we can take a minuscule part of it, say you, and return you to who you were yesterday, who you were a year ago, a decade ago, or the moment the particular sperm+egg-that-began you, began you.

(The image right, is by the incomparable Spike Walker, multiple Wellcome Image Award & Royal Photographic Society’s Combined Royal Colleges Medal winner.)

To even begin to understand a complex system such as you, let alone you-living-on-Planet A-along-with-all-other-living-critters, we need to think fundamentally differently.

A feature of a complex system is that, in human terms, there are many often mutually exclusive explanations about it — objets trouves as well as lost property.

We humans tell each other stories and explanations about the world. It’s how we interpret what’s going on in our environment. Sometimes our interpretations take account of the latest scientific evidence. We need more of ’em!

Here’s one seemingly simple story about complexity:

Imagine a game of chess in which the players create new tiles upon which new players arrive and play with new rules . . . The King is dead!

Eh? What’s a “king”? 

Here’s George Eliot with a different story on the subject of chess:

Fancy what a game of chess would be if all the chessmen had passions and intellects, more or less small and cunning; if you were not only uncertain about your adversary’s men, but a little uncertain about your own. You would be especially likely to be beaten, if you depended arrogantly on your mathematical imagination, and regarded your passionate pieces with contempt. Yet this imaginary chess is easy compared with a game a man has to play against his fellow-men with other fellow-men for instruments.”

PART FOUR: The geophysical world is changing faster than it has for millennia
Within your lifetime, the geophysical world is changing more rapidly than it has for millennia. And the change is accelerating.

The accelerated climate change caused by all this Life — or more particularly, the lives of the few billion of us born since around 1600 — of which more in the next blogpost.

The geophysical world cannot return to what it was. The rest of the ‘natural world’, living beings, can’t either. Any more than you can return to being the infant you once were.

PART FIVE: ‘Restoring the environment’?  Say, a wildflower prairie or meadow?
In January 2018, Michael Gove, then Defra Secretary of State, hit the headlines, was applauded at the Oxford Farming Conference, for saying farmers would get subsidies for turning fields back into wildflower meadows after Brexit. As though it (and Brexit) were easy-peasy.

[And did he just forget food security? Or assume abundance?]

Some 25 years ago, Kevin Kelly wrote Out of Control, a book way still ahead of its time. Chapter 4 is called Assembling complexity, now online here. It describes a two-decade attempt to create a wildflower prairie just outside Chicago, like the many that used to be across the USA. It was never achieved.

Of course it wasn’t. The nearest thing to succeeding was something a bit like it, prairie-style rather than prairie, partially assembled (not reassembled) after two decades of trial and error.

The world can’t go back to what it was. New tiles, new players, new rules.

Stone and mountain ranges and continents. They, too, are out of control. The sheer joy of momentum and getting their rocks off.

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