This is the third of three posts, exploring the connections between cultural morality, sustainable development, and iconoclasm.
Iconoclast from Byzantine Greek εἰκονοκλάστης (literally “image breaker”). Iconoclasm is the deliberate destruction within a culture of the culture’s own religious icons and other symbols or monuments, usually for religious or political motives.1
”A major reorientation is needed in many policies and institutional arrangements at the international as well as national level. The time has come to break away […] to break out of past patterns. Attempts to maintain social and ecological stability through old approaches to development and environmental protection will increase instability. Security must be sought through change.”
– the Brundtland report (introduced earlier in this series, in “Moral Deference of Sustainability“).
The same sentiment was expressed beautifully, albeit more concisely, by Albert Einstein:
We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.
A couple of decades ago, upon returning to Vancouver from travels abroad, my brother had invited me to stay with a small group who had squatted the upper floor of a Chinese supermarket, in Chinatown, during winter. There was no heating. The rooms, which may have been meant for use as storage areas or offices, were already inhabited by squatters; I had set up my tent to one side of the ‘common area’ (display space) over a well used polyurethane foam mattress core and folded cardboard boxes. This arrangement acted well to insulate me from the cold and from other curious scavengers.
The squat had two microwave ovens, standing side by side in the ‘kitchen’. The machines were being made use of by two squatter species; us (Homo sapiens) and them (Periplaneta americana). Preiplanetans were regularly observed perambulating the upper reaches of both microwave oven cavities. Interestingly, they were never observed on the the lower walls or floor/platter. Due partly to the gloomy ambient condition of the ‘kitchen’, and the fact that no observations were performed while the oven was not in use by a human, insects were observed only while the oven was operating, and thus the cavity was lit by it’s own internal light source. It was fascinating to discover that the Preiplanetan colony had made use of warm spots, on the rear exterior and within the ventilation channels of each machine, as ‘preschool’ redundancies. That is to say the colony was making use of physically protected and heated areas of the machines, as incubators for the ootheca and nymph stages of the Preiplanetan life cycle.
“Scientists are discovering that […] cockroaches are actually highly social creatures; they recognise members of their own families, with different generations of the same families living together. Cockroaches do not like to be left alone, and suffer ill health when they are. And they form closely bonded, egalitarian societies, based on social structures and rules. Communities of cockroaches are even capable of making collective decisions for the greater good. By studying certain species of cockroach, we may even be able to learn some insights into how more advanced animal societies evolved, including our own.”3
Two cockroach species (Blattella germanica and Periplaneta americana) that have adapted to human habitats, have become model species for sociobiological studies revealing complex systems of social organization via various forms of communication and group dynamics. Though closely related to termites, roaches are not eusocial, they are described as gregarious and egalitarian. “[Gregarious] species present yet another form of sociality where individuals of all developmental stages and from various genetic lineages co-exist in open and more or less ﬂuid (yet integrated) aggregates […] characterised by a common shelter, overlapping generations, non-closure of groups, equal reproductive potential of group members, an absence of task specialisation, high levels of social dependence, central place foraging, social information transfer, kin recognition, [sophisticated communication and emergent forms of cooperation], and a meta-population structure.”4
A metapopulation is a group of subpopulations.5
– note that this image was sourced from a computer science document describing computer models of knowledge ecosystems as part of adaptive management. The image served as an analogy: “local meetings […] produce information for higher level processes”. Also of interest, is that the source document was authored by a person whose principal area of research is defined as:
“the dynamics and impact of pests and diseases, particularly the effects of climate and weather.”
The research approach is described as:
“multi-disciplinary, multi-agency knowledge-based systems and decision support systems, [including] the use of Artificial Intelligence […], customized document generation, and internet-based system deployment.”
It is surprisingly easy to overlook the significance of what we have encountered here; a convergence of insect population dynamics, human population dynamics, and information population dynamics. However, as we shall see in the following section, population dynamics need not be computable (rational) in order to be effective realities.
Personally, I would add that this is the kind of thing I felt in April of last year, when in the Preamble to “Refraction of the State of Nature“, I wrote:
“As I continue to explore, now reaching for novel connections as well as topics of exploration, I am beginning to catch fleeting glimpses of a unity. Not a Grand Unified Theory, nor the Theory of everything sought by theoretical physicists, but a more modest unity of the handful of ideas explored in these pages, to date.”
Synergy versus Stigmergy
Synergy is widely misunderstood as a synonym for ‘mystical activity’. Literally, the term refers to cooperativity, and is derived from Ancient Greek σύν (sún “together”) and ἔργον (érgon “work”)6. However, synergy implies an outcome of cooperation that is in principle unpredictable from the action of the cooperating agents. Thus it seems fair to assume that the term represents ‘irrational (non-computable) emergent phenomena’, also known as strong emergence7, and ‘a whole greater than the sum of its parts’.
Stigmergy may be interpreted as a rationalized form of synergy, and may be described as a self-organizing and self-regulating process (i.e. an operational mode) mediated by indirect cooperation between multiple agents8, which collectively give rise to qualitative meta-phenomena not attainable by the individual agents. We had touched upon this concept in an earlier post, titled Governance, under the heading “How does nature govern her systems?”.
Inefficient use of energy feeds the world
“Sunlight plays a much larger role in our sustenance than we may expect: all the food we eat and all the fossil fuel we use is a product of photosynthesis, which is the process that converts energy in sunlight to chemical forms of energy that can be used by biological systems. Photosynthesis is carried out by many different organisms, ranging from plants to bacteria. The best known form of photosynthesis is the one carried out by higher plants and algae, as well as by cyanobacteria and their relatives, which are responsible for a major part of photosynthesis […].”9
Fascinatingly, even though photosynthesis produces all the food we eat and all the fossil fuel we use, it is a remarkably inefficient process:
– “[The] theoretical maximum efficiency of solar energy conversion is approximately 11%. In practice, however, the magnitude of photosynthetic efficiency observed in the field, is further decreased by factors such as poor absorption of sunlight due to its reflection, respiration requirements of photosynthesis and the need for optimal solar radiation levels. The net result being an overall photosynthetic efficiency of between 3 and 6% of total solar radiation.”10
– “[The maximum conversion efficiency of solar energy to biomass ranges from 4.6% to 6%, at 30 degrees C and today’s 380 ppm atmospheric CO2.]”11
– “Due to losses at all steps in biochemistry, one has been able to get only about 1 to 2% energy efficiency in most crop plants. Sugarcane is an exception as it can have almost 8% efficiency. However, many plants in Nature often have only 0.1 % energy efficiency.”12
In contrast to ancient photosynthetic cells, state of the art photovoltaic cells approach 45% energy efficiency, but they do not self-organize, adapt, or reproduce. Certainly there seems little hope of them feeding the world.
Timeline of solar cell energy conversion efficiencies13
Importantly, the reader is not to assume that the meaning here is entirely antagonistic toward photovoltaic technology. Simply, a trend of increasing energetic efficiency, like increasing gross domestic product, is extremely unlikely to solve any of our existential (environmental) problems. Rather, an entirely different set of thoughts – an entirely different worldview – is necessary. It is precisely at this point in our train of thought that iconoclasm becomes of critical importance.
A networked collective of inefficient nodes, even if cooperation between them is indirect and discontinuous, can produce vastly more efficient outcomes than is predictable from efficient operations at the level of individual agents.
It does not always compute, may be irrational and thus immeasurable. It flows naturally among and between us; among and between all living things. It flows from Sun to Earth, through water and rock, emerging spontaneously as life … as the Higgs field … as the Aether.
It is not, and can never be ‘good science’. The Church of Reason will have great difficulty defining it, though our great House of Arte has always imagined it clearly, and continues to tap it regularly.
In our modern culture the image of irrational faith over rational knowledge (see image below) is surely the most difficult icon to break. If you do manage this feat of iconoclasm, then you will see clearly that irrationality is the denominator, and rationality the numerator.
Only a fraction of everything imaginable is knowable.
Bibliography and Notes
2) T. Santos etal, “3D Electromagnetic Field Simulation in Microwave Ovens: a Tool
to Control Thermal Runaway”, (2010), COSMOL Conference (excerpt), http://www.comsol.com/paper/download/63024/santos_paper.pdf
3) M. Walker, “Why cockroaches need their friends”, (2012), BBC Nature, http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/17839642
4) M. Lihoreau et al, “The social biology of domiciliary cockroaches: colony structure, kin recognition and collective decisions”, (2012), International Union for the Study of Social Insects, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00040-012-0234-x (abstract only)
5) A. Thomson, “Knowledge Ecosystems”, (2012), Adaptive Knowledge Management, http://adaptivekm.com/ke_more.html
9) W. Vermaas, “An Introduction to Photosynthesis and Its Applications”, (2007), Center for Bioenergy & Photosynthesis, Arizona State University, http://photoscience.la.asu.edu/photosyn/education/photointro.html
10) K. Miyamoto et al, “Renewable biological systems for alternative sustainable energy production”, (1997), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, http://www.fao.org/docrep/w7241e/w7241e05.htm
11) Zhu et al, “What is the maximum efficiency with which photosynthesis can convert solar energy into biomass?”, (2008), Department of Plant Biology, University of Illinois, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18374559
12) Govindjee & Govindjee, “What is Photosynthesis?”, (ca. 2000), School of Life Sciences, University of Illinois, http://www.life.illinois.edu/govindjee/whatisit.htm
13) G. Wilson & K. Emery, “Best Research-Cell Efficiencies”, (2014), National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), Golden, CO, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_cell#mediaviewer/File:PVeff%28rev140511%29.jpg