Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

Rider Park, Lycoming County, PA.

Rider Park, Lycoming County, PA.

After my last post, I feel the need to take a stronger stand against wealth inequality. Though I have no doubt that it “matters”, there are plenty of arguments, some from noted economists, that the world can continue on in this unequal fashion just fine, and there are even some that claim that inequality is actually a wonderful thing (and just as many that say it can’t, and isn’t). But, in the midst of trying to determine which of these arguments have merit, an article that a friend recommended made me realize that I’m not thinking nearly big enough, and, like the saying goes, I haven’t been seeing the forest for the trees.

The article is a scholarly one, by David W. Kidner of Nottingham Trent University in the UK, entitled “Industrialism and the Fragmentation of Temporal Structure”. If you want to tackle the original, then click on the PDF button on this page. However, I’ll try to condense some of his ideas here, at the risk of oversimplifying, and at the risk of melding some of my ideas with his.

Kidner’s key idea is, perhaps, that industrialism has profoundly changed the world, AND has changed how we think about the world. We have become part of the industrial system, and if we aren’t careful, our solutions to environmental problems will come from within this industrial mindset. But if industrialism itself is antithetical to nature, as it gives every appearance of being, then such solutions may well be false. So how does industrialism change how we think? Partly, according to Kidner, by altering our sense of time in ways that cause us to focus too much on the immediate. Things that came before, or things that will follow after, are increasingly eclipsed by an abnormal focus on the present. This is combined with a modern habit of seeing “nature” as a static state; a snapshot in present time. The reality is far more complex, however—the natural world is not a single state, but rather a pattern that plays out over time. Nature can’t be understood at a fixed moment; such an attempt is too reductionist. As Kidner puts it, “…fragmentation sucks the meaning out of the world”. If we are to truly see the natural world, then we must step back, not just spatially, but temporally. When we do this, we see a great continuum, where the past, present, and future are all one “thing”; one process; one pattern.

And, when we get to this point, we can begin to see how destructive industrialism has been. Industrialized humans, by ignoring the past and the future, are completely disrupting these patterns in time. In fact, Kidner asserts that the consequences of our current actions far exceed our ability to predict their future effects. We are in effect smashing things that are far, far removed from us in time, and in ways that we are unable to understand. As he puts it, we are “colonizing the future”. A related effect of this reduced temporal view is that we tend to see nature as it was earlier in our own lifetimes as the norm, when that state could have already been far degraded. But many of these degradations, while nearly instantaneous in geologic time, move just slowly enough in terms of human perception as to render them barely noticeable (for a discussion of this see my post, “Global Warming for the Skeptical“). Only by training ourselves to see things from a temporal distance can we begin to see both the destruction that humans have caused, and the changes that today’s actions will cause; one lifetime’s worth of personal experience just isn’t encompassing enough to see the patterns. Global warming, the buildup of toxic chemicals, mountaintop removal mining, the loss of topsoil, desertification, nuclear waste, the wholesale alteration of land and sea, the mushrooming of human populations, extinctions—with some temporal distance it becomes clear that these are all occurring very, very quickly, and that we are at risk of permanently destroying the earth’s natural systems. (A perfect example of all of this short-term thinking—the article about sea-level rise in Florida in the current National Geographic Magazine, which mentions how developers and politicians are purposefully using 50-year projections rather than 100-year ones, because the latter show enough sea-level rise to render huge parts of Florida uninhabitable.)

So much for the Everglades. Florida with one meter of sea-level rise, an amount predicted to occur well before 2100.

So much for the Everglades. NASA image of Florida with one meter of sea-level rise, an amount predicted to occur well before 2100.

Realizing how constrained we are in our thinking is important, because if we try and deal with our problems from within an industrial viewpoint that focuses nearly exclusively on present states, one that ignores patterns in time, then we get answers that are invalid. We must have the courage to step outside of our viewpoints that are colored by our industrial experiences, even if we can’t see how solutions will work within the context of our current political or cultural realities. To not do so is to become captive to our current myopic view, and will result in limited answers that fail to “get out of the box”, so to speak.

So, to get back to where I started, this was the thought that made me realized that my efforts to decide how to argue against global wealth inequality is an example of what Kidner is discussing, of trying to reason from within a flawed system. By stepping back a bit, the answer becomes crystal clear. Of course we don’t want segments of society to be permanently more advantaged than others, it isn’t fair, it isn’t moral, and it isn’t just. And it doesn’t matter whether or not we think that the current capitalist system will function with our without this inequality; that too is irrelevant—who’s to say that our current grasping and relentless capitalism is an ideal state? And it doesn’t matter if we can’t figure out at this exact moment what might replace capitalism, because our ideal goals might lie outside of current systems or knowledge.

Kidner discusses the difficulty of finding these solutions, and concludes that because these ideal goals are likely to transcend what is currently possible, that our moves toward them may appear partial or even backward. As he puts it,

“the healing of the natural world cannot be realized either simply or directly, and effective action will require us to locate our immediate objectives within a recovered longer-term vision of a healthy natural world”.

He stresses that we must be realistic, however.

“In the short-term, we clearly have to work within existing political realities, and pretending otherwise simply substitutes fantasy for reality. However, short-term aims should not be ends in themselves, but rather should be integrated within longer-term objectives…”.

And, because we have so distanced ourselves from nature, finding the path ahead will be difficult.

Let's make the whole world look like this. We need a smaller human footprint.

Let’s make the whole world look like this; we need a smaller human footprint. A lake in the mountains between Chile and Argentina.

So let me attempt to be bold, even if I don’t know how we are going to get there. If we are going to live in a “benevolent symbiosis with nature” then we are going to need a few things. We will likely need far, far fewer humans on the planet. We will need to end war. We will need to end the exploitation of others, and we will need to find our sense of self-worth from something other than our possessions. We will need to completely change our agricultural systems, likely to some form of permaculture. We will need clean, renewable power, and we will need to find a way to live with tiny footprints on the land and sea. But if we can do all these things, then nature, of which we are a part, can function and thrive. And when it thrives, we will thrive with it. We will know, then, that the past, the present, and the future are one, and we will remain cognizant of our role in the huge sweep of time.

Top image credit: Nicholas A. Tonelli, “Rider Park (3)”, Flickr Creative Commons.
Florida map: NASA.
Lake image: Trey Ratcliff, “Circumnavigating the Lake”, Flickr Creative Commons.

2 thoughts on “Can’t See the Forest for the Trees

  1. Hunter Cole

    I believe we not only CAN live in harmony with nature, but will be FORCED to. Most environmental issues are a result not of our industrial and present-oriented thought process, but of our propensity to protect other human beings in all monetarily feasible ways. By keeping many individuals in a population healthy through unnatural means, that population can easily exceed its environment’s carrying capacity. Humans, naturally being a K-selected species, should have nearly zero population growth once the carrying capacity of our environment is reached. We, however, have created technology, such as advanced medicine and architecture, that allows us to unsustainably change the carrying capacity of our environment and continue to grow. Altering our environment in these ways makes our population unstable, like one of an r-selected species. So, we have the population growth of an r-selected species, AND the unstable environment of an r-selected species. It would not be illogical then, to assume that our growth rate will take on the patterns of an r-selected species. This means at some point in the relatively near future, we are due for a major reduction of our unsustainable population, which will be caused by the unstable environment we have created for ourselves. After our population no longer exceeds the natural carrying capacity of our environment, which has been lowered due to our degradation of the environment in order to artificially alter its carrying capacity, we can again assume the role of a K-selected species. To maintain a stable environment and our status as a K-selected species, we will have to be mindful of our rate of reproduction, end our obsession with unnecessary material objects, and utilize more sustainable methods of energy production and agriculture.

    1. Taborri Post author

      Hunter, your post really made me think, because it’s also clearly true, and I wasn’t sure how to reconcile the two. Then I realized that you’re describing the physical mechanisms for what is happening, and Kidner’s article is describing the psychological mechanisms. So, both can and likely are true, at the same time, and together they provide an even clearer picture of what’s happening. Hopefully we humans can get our acts together and fix our situation in a deliberate fashion, rather than having collapse fix it for us. As a species we’re smart enough to delay collapse for a time even when it becomes inevitable, and by the time it all came to a head, we might take half of nature down along with us. Let us all please find some wisdom…

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