Considering Appropriate spatial-temporal Scale — bigger and faster isn’t always better!
An excerpt from ‘Exploring Participation’ (D.C.Wahl, 2002)
In their book Ecological Design, Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan introduce the concept of ‘scale-linking’. They argue that since we traditionally have studied the world using the language, metaphors and tools of a single discipline at a time, we have been predisposed to “seeing process on a single scale”.
Van der Ryn and Cowan believe that this approach is insufficient in capturing the underlying phenomena, since:
“Nature’s processes are inherently scale linking, for they inherently depend on the flow of energy and materials across scales. … Global cycles link organisms together in a highly effective recycling system crossing about seventeen tenfold jumps in scale, from the ten-billionth of a meter (the scale of photosynthesis) to ten thousand kilometres (the scale of the Earth itself).”139
In their opinion:
“Scale-linking systems imply a holism in which everything influences, or potentially influences everything else — because everything is in some sense constantly interacting with everything else. Nature is infused with the dynamical interpenetration of the vast and minute, an endless dervish mixing. Matter and energy continually flow across scales, the small informing the large and the large informing the small …
Unless we work with nature’s own finely tuned scale-linking systems we endanger the stability of life on the planet… If we are to properly include ecological concerns within design, we must take seriously the challenge offered by scale linking. We need to discover ways to integrate our design processes across multiple levels of scale and make these processes compatible with natural cycles of water, energy, and material.”140
— Van der Ryn & Cowan
Van der Ryn and Cowan argue that fractal geometry provides a tool to study the geometry of scale linking, as it helps to connect remarkable ranges of scale “from twig to tree, from rivulet to watershed.”141 They see our failure not to pay attention to scale-linking and therefore not to match the human flows of energy and materials to the limits of a particular landscape as a critical cause of the current environmental crisis. [Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. Be mindful that I wrote this 15 years ago and enjoy!]
In overstepping local limits we began to rely “on far-flung ecological subsidies”142 and interfered with the complex web of processes, which in its fractal dimensions links the local with the global and the short-term with the long-term. This web of processes within processes links the processes within a leaf on a single tree, not only to the processes of the entire tree but also to the processes of the ecosystem that tree is in, and the processes of the bioregion which contains that ecosystem, and on up the magnitudes of scale, which ultimately connect those localized processes of, say photosynthesis, with global weather patterns and atmospheric composition.
Our conception of linear causality and space-time predisposes us to believe that the minute and local could not possibly have a significant effect on the large global scale, but in a complex non-linear web of processes within processes the emergent properties at the global scale are intricately linked with processes on the scale of individual local interactions in what, for lack of a better word, could be called a fractal-like holarchy of emergence.
Let me emphasize that I am not talking about a hierarchy of power in which the global controls the local or vice versa, I am simply talking about a web of relationships that connects the two inseparably. The term holarchy was first used by Arthur Koestler. It is meant to contrast dominator hierarchies with natural hierarchies — orders of increasing wholeness 143, like cells, organisms, communities, ecosystems and so on.
This reciprocal relationship between processes at different spatial-temporal scales reflects the relationship between the whole and the part, we have discussed at length in the philosophical context. In applying this analogy across all scales of the whole we should remember Bortoft’s clarification that “the hazard of emergence is such that the whole depends on the parts to be able to come forth, and the parts depend on the coming forth of the whole” (see philosophical context). Atmospheric oxygen content depends on each individual photosynthesising organism on the planet, which in turn depend upon the right atmospheric conditions.
We should not make the mistake of thinking too narrowly only about either scales of time or scales of space. Since time and space are hard, if not impossible to separate, I suggest to maintain awareness that scale-linking not only links the minute with the vast but also long-term cycles like fluctuations in the earth’s average temperature with short-term cycles of, lets say the speed at which oxygen is given off by a single leaf during photosynthesis, or, more obviously and slightly facetiously, the rate at which an ignorant species is burning fossil fuels.
There have been recent attempts to express this interconnectedness of processes on a wide range of temporal and spatial scales. I have already mentioned the interdisciplinary approach of Gunderson and Holling. It proposes the explanatory metaphor of the “panarchy” as “a nested set of adaptive cycles arranged as a dynamical hierarchy in space and time.”144 They point out that:
“Ecosystem ecologists… have made it plain for a long while that some of the most telling properties of ecological systems emerge from the interactions between the slow-moving and the fast moving processes and processes that have large spatial reach and processes that are relatively localized. Those interactions are nonlinear …and maintain the resilience of ecological systems.”145
— Gunderson & Holling
Van der Ryn and Cowan suggest we should design our human systems in a way that they match the flow on the landscape and its inherent geometry. We should, for example, use “natural drainage instead of storm drains, wetlands instead of sewage treatment plants, and indigenous materials rather than imported ones.”146
Matching the energy and material flow of human systems to the local environment required using local materials and resources and operating at a scale small enough to give rapid feedback on the effects of trial and error. Beyond this very limited local scale it becomes impossible to assess what impact actions might have as they propagate through the web of inter-related processes, which connect the local with the global.
The main reason why industrial civilisation has managed to develop for almost two-hundred years until the signs indicating the decrease in environmental health became as apparent as they are today is Nature’s astonishing resilience which is due to the dynamic stability of the process as a whole. It is precisely the web-like interconnection of processes on all spatial and temporal scales, the relation between organisms, ecosystems and global cycles that has buffered the effect of our irresponsible actions for so long. As David Orr explains:
“Increasing velocity and scale tends to increase the complexity of social and ecological arrangements and reduce the time available to recognize and avoid problems. Cures for problems caused by increasing velocity often set in motion a cascading series of other problems. As a result, we stumble through a succession of escalating crises with diminishing capacity to act intelligently. … At a local scale the effect is widening circles of disintegration and social disorder. At the global scale, the rate of change caused by increasing velocity disrupts biological evolution and the biogeochemical cycles of the earth.”147
— David W. Orr
One of the crucial lessons on our path of learning about appropriate participation and sustainability that we can draw from these observations is that scales of time and space are not separate but interpenetrate each other across scale. The complex and dynamic processes of interaction and relationship are non-linear and fundamentally unpredictable.
It seems therefore appropriate to limit our own processes, as much as possible, to a spatial range and a velocity that will match the natural process in a particular local environment and not exceed its limits. At that level of scale we will be able to learn more effectively about appropriate participation, since we will be more aware of the effects of our actions on the environment. Paraphrasing Fritz Schumacher, it seems that small and slow is not only beautiful, but also appropriate. Schumacher wrote:
“What is the meaning of democracy, freedom, human dignity, standard of living, self-realization, fulfilment? Is it a matter of goods or people? Of course it is a matter of people. But people can be themselves only in small comprehensible groups. Therefore we must learn to think in terms of an articulated structure that can cope with a multiplicity of small scale units.”148
— E.F. Schumacher
[Note: This is an excerpt from my 2002 masters dissertation in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. It addresses some of the root causes of our current crises of unsustainability. If you are interested in the references you can find them here. The research I did for my masters thesis directly informed my 2006 PhD thesis in ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health: A Holistic/Integral Approach to Complexity and Sustainability’ (2006), and after 10 years of experience as an educator, consultant, activist, and expert-generalist in whole systems design and transformative innovation, I published Designing Regenerative Cultures with Triarchy Press in May 2016.]